The UK has committed to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions to net zero by 2050. As part of this promise, the government has a target to cut emissions by 78% by 2035, compared with 1990 levels. Heating of housing and buildings has been highlighted to be one of the largest sources of UK carbon emissions accounting for 21% of the total. This is mostly owing to the over dependence of gas-boiler heating systems and poor insulation. This has been recognised by the government who has announced that more than £3.9 billion of new funding will be utilised to decarbonise heat and buildings. The plan is to incentivise people to install low-carbon heating systems in a simple, fair and cheap way as they come to replace their old boilers over the coming decade. This will significantly reduce the UK’s dependency on fossil fuels and exposure to global price spikes.
With the UK government looking to move away from gas boilers they are now searching for greener alternatives. The government has looked to significantly invest in systems such as heat pumps and even explored the future potential of hydrogen. However, we will be focusing today on the potential of District heating solutions and how Biomass could play a part.
District heating offers the promise of a simple solution for the supply of low carbon heat to homes, businesses and public buildings across the UK. It’s all about taking energy released as heat from a range of energy sources in a centralised location and distributed amongst multiple different buildings through a system of highly insulated pipes. Heat is then transported into buildings using a heat exchanger which for a residential property can be about the same size as a small gas boiler. There is considerable support for the expansion of such heating networks. Currently infrastructure and production are limited with just over 2% of UK homes currently connected to a district heating network, more are expected to come online as the UK transitions to net zero over the coming decades. With an estimated 50% of buildings in the UK located in areas of suitable density for heat networks, the system has the potential to have a far greater impact. These systems can massively vary in scale from small “community” systems which can service smaller estates to larger scale which can be used to heat cities.
There are many different sources that can provide the input and act as the fuel to a heat network. These can include fossil fuel powered facilities such as Combined heat and power plants (CHP), Power stations and Electric boilers. However, there are renewable alternatives which can increase the systems positive sustainability impact. This is where Biomass can become a key player in helping the government achieve its net zero goals.
Biomass district heating is when a single wood burning boiler is utilised as the community heating source. These systems can be highly environmentally and economically beneficial. Biomass district heating can offer CO2 savings of up to 96% and even save fuel costs up to 80% in comparison to fossil fuels. For example, a large-scale biomass heating system producing around 450,000 Kwh of heat per year, can cut heating costs by 50% over oil and reduce C02 emissions by 95,000kg per year. The use of biomasses such as forest residues, agricultural residues and wood-work waste does not increase the global amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In fact, the biomasses combustion process frees the same amount of CO2 as amount absorbed by the plants during their entire life. With combustion only occurring centrally, it can provide a safe environment in which to live or work, with no annual safety checks, carbon monoxide alarms or health and safety provisions required at the point of use. Having one centralised system also makes servicing and maintenance much easier and at a lower cost.
This has been a brief introduction to District heating. It is undoubtedly an interesting solution that can bring many of the benefits that the government desire to reach their goals of a net zero society. However, it is quite hard to get right in practice. One of the main issues it that it is much easier to implement in the planning stage before building rather than retrofitting. Regardless of these challenges the government are set on exploring it further with £338million being pledged to the Heat Network Transformation Program. These funds are aimed at scaling up the heat networks across the UK having a major positive impact on decarbonisation and decreasing heating costs at the same time. We will be following these advancements and discussing them further in future ‘Industry Insights’ with particular focus on the part Biomass can play.