Withdrawing RHI for urban biomass - what you need to know
Posted by Sam Tonge on 1 November 2018 at 9:55 am
Last month, The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) launched a consultation which wants your views on whether the Renewable Heat Incentive should be paid for new biomass installations in urban areas.
The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) is a UK Government financial incentive designed to encourage domestic and non-domestic uptake of renewable heat, with the aim of meeting the 2020 target of 12% of heating coming from renewable sources.
However the BEIS consultation is proposing that the RHI should be withdrawn for new biomass installations in urban areas, as a way of meeting DEFRA’s Clean Air Strategy (published in May 2018).
What’s the problem?
The consultation proposes removing RHI support for new biomass installations to address air quality concerns in urban areas. It highlights how burning biomass in boilers can contribute to air pollution by producing fine smoke particles and other toxic air pollutants such as hydrocarbons. Although it is acknowledged that biomass boilers are significantly cleaner than burning wood on open fires or in stoves, it’s stated that they still produce much higher levels of particulate matter than mains gas or oil boilers.
What is being proposed?
Therefore the Government is proposing that RHI support is withdrawn for all new installations of biomass boilers in urban areas which are currently served by the gas network. Hence, existing installations which are registered with the RHI would continue to receive payment, and those in rural areas would remain unaffected.
The removal of this financial incentive would apply to domestic and non-domestic users and would cover all biomass installations including combined heat and power (CHP), but not biogas (as its contribution to air pollution is marginal in comparison to biomass combustion).
However existing RHI users are not quite off the hook, as the consultation cites poorly maintained equipment and inappropriate fuels as a key contributor to pollution (at far higher levels than originally stated during installation). As a result, BEIS is seeking your views on whether mandatory maintenance checks should be introduced for both existing and new biomass installations covered by RHI.
Points to consider
We don’t wish to impart a particular view ourselves about the consultation, but we highlight the key points and will leave you to use your best judgement.
It’s important to remember that biomass only boilers and biomass pellet stoves currently only qualify for the domestic Renewable Heat Incentive if systems do not exceed the maximum permitted emissions limits of 30g per gigajoule (g/GJ) net thermal input of particulate matter (PM) and 150g/GJ for oxides of nitrogen (NOx). Systems installed between 15 July 2009 and the start of the scheme don’t need to meet this requirement. In addition, it’s currently stated that should the proposal be implemented, that existing RHI users in urban areas will continue to receive payment.
The proposed changes do not in any way prohibit the use of wood burning, which is already regulated under the Government’s rules on air quality, such as smoke control areas. All the BEIS consultation is suggesting is to remove the financial incentive to burn biomass in urban areas for prospective RHI recipients. This calls into question whether it will really have a notable impact on tackling current levels of air pollution, which remains a major issue affecting the health of many of us. Sustainability is at its core an holistic concept which recognises human wellbeing alongside environmental sustainability, therefore it’s always paramount to consider and attempt to balance these aspects.
With regards to the second part of the consultation (seeking views on mandatory maintenance checks for existing RHI biomass installations), its good practice to do this already. The main emissions from burning clean, seasoned wood are water vapour and carbon dioxide (plus nitrogen and oxygen from the combustion air). Traces of carbon monoxide, particulates and volatile organic compounds become a cause for concern in the case of poorly-fitted stoves and poor quality wood being burned. Hence, we always recommend regularly maintaining your appliance and making sure the biomass you burn is of a sufficient quality, regardless of whether you’re in an urban area or not. See: Wood fuel in your home: 10 need-to-knows
Therefore it’s important to highlight that mandating maintenance won’t affect those who burn biomass responsibly, and will act as an incentive for others to fall into line with the required standards.
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Image credit: David Holt
About the author:
Sam has contributed to our blog since 2016 and previously worked for the National Energy Foundation.
He became interested in green energy after completing a degree in Geography (BSc) at Royal Holloway, University of London.
Sam is passionate about renewable energy and is committed to spreading the word about the role it plays in delivering environmental sustainability.
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