What is Biomass?
Biomass is a renewable energy source, biological material from living or recently living organisms. As an energy source, biomass can either be used directly, or converted into other energy products such as biofuel. Biomass is available in a number of different forms which include wood, straw, energy crops, sewage sludge, waste organic materials and animal litter. Although burning biomass releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, this is offset by the carbon dioxide absorbed in the original growth of the biomass, which is why it is considered more environmentally beneficial than fossil fuels.
As a result, using biomass for heating results in very low net ‘life cycle’ carbon emissions relative to conventional sources of heating, such as coal, gas, heating oil or electricity.
Biomass Fuels and Heating systems
Biomass heating is a mature, proven technology and has been used successfully for many years in countries such as Austria, Finland, Denmark and Italy.
The most commonly used sources of biomass heating fuels are virgin wood, certain energy crops, industrial wood residues and certain agricultural residues. Biomass fuels are typically delivered as woodchips, or wood pellets, but can also be in other forms such as logs or straw bales. Fuel is normally provided by one or more dedicated suppliers, but on-site materials can also be used in some situations such as on farms.
The key characteristics of a biomass fuel include its moisture content, which affects its energy content (the calorific value), and the particle size/grade. Factors that affect fuel cost include the type of fuel and its associated market availability, the quality of the fuel, the form the fuel is delivered in and the proximity of the fuel source to the point of use.
The heating system itself consists of biomass boiler plant, ancillary equipment (such as control systems flues and pipe work), and infrastructure to receive and store fuel and transfer it to the main boiler unit. Fuel can be stored in various ways, such as dedicated storage facilities (either above or below ground), integrated facilities within existing buildings, or in removable storage containers.
Biomass plant can vary from small, manually fed systems with few controls, to fully automatic systems with advanced controls and remote monitoring. The types of plant available range from moving grate, plane grate, stoker burner and batch-fired systems, with the choice of system dependent upon fuel grade and type and the degree of automation required, with costs varying accordingly.
Biomass heating equipment is best suited to operating relatively continuously. This means that a heat store and/or back-up plant are useful means of smoothing demand. Biomass systems are also typically physically larger than equivalent fossil-fuel systems, although with technical advances this in changing rapidly, with smaller domestic systems now available.
One of the major attractions of biomass is the Renewable Heat Incentive, which in simple terms generates income as it generates heat.
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