This section explains what biomass is and how it is used in four energy generating technologies.

Why use biomass?

  • Biomass is a versatile renewable heat and power generation resource that can be used at different scales and applications.
  • It provides good value space and water heating with relatively short financial payback periods.
  • Most biomass is cheaper than fossil fuels (heating oil is almost four times the price of wood chips per kW).
  • In some cases it can be used to replace existing fuels without changing technology (for example, you might be able to use biogas in an existing gas boiler).
  • Biomass is a way to use waste organic matter that would otherwise go to landfill, allowing local authorities to save money on landfill tax.
  • Biomass significantly reduces CO2 emissions - a typical household converting from oil heating to a wood pellet boiler would reduce its CO2 emissions from 5.3 tonnes to 0.8 tonnes a year.

Benefits and potential impacts of biomass

Cost and funding

Costs vary according to the technology used, the scale of the installation, the amount of pipework needed and any thermal storage required.

The table below shows total installed costs for domestic or building level bioler installations. Total installed costs for larger biomass heat only systems are more than £750 per kW.

Application Cost
Room heater £2,000 - £3,000
Typical house £5,000 - £12,000
Offices and or farmhouse £40,000 - £70,000

Biomass boilers are more than twice as expensive to buy as conventional boilers. This higher upfront cost is offset by the lower costs of biomass fuel compared with oil and natural gas.

Bigger savings will be made for installations in homes that are not connected to the gas network. Significant savings can also be made on installations in properties that have a large heating requirement.

There is a range of funding sources that can be used to develop biomass power generation. The following link has more detailed information on the cost of using biomass and an explanation of the funding mechanisms available.

How much does it cost and where can I get funding?

Project timescales

Timescales from inception to commissioning vary depending on the scale of the project:

  • Building level - up to six months
  • Community - one to three years
  • Large scale - on average between three to five years.

How and where biomass works

Biomass diagram

Biomass generally refers to technology that is fuelled by organic material to generate electricity and or heat.

There are four main technologies that use biomass:

  1. Direct combustion
  2. Anaerobic digestion
  3. Pyrolysis
  4. Gasification.

The diagram on the right is an illustrative example of a biomass plant room. It does not represent one particular technology type.

When identifying opportunities to use biomass, you need to consider access to fuel sources and infrastructure requirements.

Access to fuel: The priority is to source fuel locally, within a 50 mile radius. However, as demand for biomass increases, plants located in the same area would compete for local fuel resources. Imported wood pellets could therefore become increasingly important.

Infrastructure requirements: These include transportation of the fuel and the capacity of the nearest production and storage facilities (for both fuel and heat). In addition, if combined heat and power and district heating are being considered, heat distribution infrastructure will be required. Therefore the plant would need to be in the area of the end user.

Examples of how biomass is used

Practical issues

Biomass boilers require more management than many other technologies. This includes:

  • regular ash removal - this might be weekly for large boilers and monthly for room heaters
  • annual cleaning of the burner - this can be done as part of a maintenance contract with a fuel supplier or boiler manufacturer
  • filling stoves with fuel - log burning stoves and boilers have to be filled with wood by hand: some pellet and chip burners use automatic fuel feeders which refill them at regular intervals from fuel storage units called hoppers.

Community and large-scale biomass plants would require operation and staff to carry out routine maintenance. Anaerobic digestion requires constant monitoring given the risks of fuel contamination.

There are a lot of practical issues to consider for different scales and applications of biomass. See the webpage below for more information these. This includes information on whether or not planning permission is needed for biomass projects.

Biomass project checklist

Case studies

Here are some examples of how some councils are already using biomass:

Barnsley sets off biomass boilers

Suffolk's wood fuel programme

Worcestershire uses new biomass boiler for their primary school

Useful links: where to find out more

Guidance for councils on biomass and air quality - on the Local Government Regulation website

UK Biomass strategy

Energy Saving Trust

Dorset Biomass Factsheet (PDF, 4 pages, 382KB)

Biomass Energy Centre

16 February 2011

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