Biomass Basics - Lynsey Hall

Biomass from a Newbie’s Perspective by Lynsey Hall

As a newcomer to the world of biomass, I thought it important to understand the industry I am working in.  After learning about the way in which our biomass boilers work I was keen to understand the bigger picture and the benefits that these installations have upon the environment.

The key to understanding this was to look at the fuel used and where it comes from. Biomass fuel can come from a number of sources, but my main area of interest was virgin wood; the fuel used with our boiler systems in either chip or pellet form.  I have to admit that I was initially sceptical about the benefits of using wood as fuel.  I wondered how removing trees from the environment could possibly benefit it.  I knew this scepticism must be wrong so went in search of some information to ease my uncertainty.

The first and most important thing that I learnt was that trees are not being heavily farmed like the images we see of deforestation in the rainforests.  In fact I’ve found that nearly all Biomass fuel comes from sustainable forestry and woodland sources, whether it be residues or fuel harvested specifically for biomass.  It’s important that biomass fuel and the supply chain is shown to be carbon neutral and that biomass fuel is sourced from sustainable forestry and woodland. This is tightly controlled by systems such as the “Biomass Suppliers List” (BSL) and it is clear that the supply chain is meeting those requirements.

As we are all aware, fossil fuels will one day run out. Although this may not be in our lifetimes, stocks are already depleted and cannot be reproduced as quickly as we are using them.  Whilst trees take years to reach full maturity they get there a lot quicker than fossil fuels, therefore being a much more sustainable fuel option.  They also benefit the environment whilst growing, reducing toxic carbon dioxide levels and releasing more oxygen.  This is not something that can be said of fossil fuels.  For a better understanding of the production of fossil fuels I spoke with a close friend of mine, Dr Eleanor Witterick, who has completed a PhD in biological sciences.  She explained that fossil fuels hold on to the fixed carbon that was within the initial plant source.  When these fossil fuels are released from the ground and burnt, they are releasing ancient carbon into the atmosphere and increasing overall carbon levels, which contribute to global warming along with other large-scale environmental issues.  Being of a non-scientific disposition I had to ask why there was more carbon in coal than wood.  Was this because it would take 100 trees to make one lump of coal for example?  This was confirmed and Eleanor summarised that the use of biomass energy as an alternative to fossil fuel will greatly benefit the environment because not as much carbon will be released into the atmosphere.

Although it may take longer to reach the point of harvest, it is possible to farm trees, in the same way you would corn or potatoes.  I for one often forget this fact, thinking of natural woodlands and forests being depleted.  Wood can be locally produced and sourced sustainably, which in itself reduces the carbon footprint of this fuel type because it does not use as much fuel to travel to its destination as other types may.  It can also add to local business opportunities and support the rural economy here in the UK, unlike oil which is shipped from abroad for example.

So, did my research change my thinking towards wood as a biomass fuel?  Yes it did.  Not only does the fuel itself produce less carbon when it is burnt, if it’s produced locally it takes less transportation, which reduces its carbon footprint, as well using wood from sustainable forestry and woodland sources, waste materials and residues can also be used, reduces landfill and it supports our local economy.  What is not to love about this fuel?