Wednesday 17 February 2010
The Government has suggested bioenergy could supply up to half of the UK's renewable energy needs for heat, electricity and transport by 2020
An increase in biomass boilers could do serious harm to air quality, the Government has been told, but Defra, the department that monitors pollution, has dismissed the risk as "minute".
Charity Environmental Protection UK, which campaigns for cleaner air, is concerned that policies that promote biomass boilers such as the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) and the Boiler Scrappage Scheme could cause air pollution problems if stringent standards are not implemented.
Biomass is a key aspect of renewables policy with the Government suggesting that bioenergy could supply up to half of the UK's renewable energy needs for heat, electricity and transport by 2020.
It is a growing technology. Since 2003, urban councils have used biomass to comply with the Code for Sustainable Homes, which requires new residential developments and commercial buildings to reduce their carbon emissions through on-site renewables, as options such as wind were too problematic.
Furthermore, a survey released last month by the Forestry Commission identified 1,960 biomass heat boilers in England - an increase of 455 from 2008.
While biomass boilers fuelled by clean, new wood have lower emissions than coal and roughly equivalent emissions to oil, they have higher emissions than equivalent gas-fired boilers, a report by Environmental Protection UK claimed.
And, a 2003 emissions report to Defra by consultants AEA noted that the widespread use of biomass in developing countries has been identified as a potentially significant source of heavy metal and other toxin exposure.
In its RHI consultation the Government wrote "We recognise that rolling out large numbers of biomass installations may, cumulatively, have a detrimental impact on air quality in urban areas."
It recognised that while stringent emissions standards are applied for biomass boilers above 20MW, below this level there are currently no regulations that apply across the UK. It proposed maximum emissions standards for biomass boilers of 30g/GJ for particulate matter (PM) and 150g/GJ for nitrogen oxides (NOX) and added that Defra is investigating the potential impact of these standards on air quality and in terms of health costs.
Defra said that it recognised rolling out large numbers of biomass installations may, cumulatively, have a detrimental impact on air quality in urban areas, but added it was confident that measures the Government had put in place would act to mitigate any detrimental effects.
A Defra spokesman told NewEnergyFocus.com: "Our evidence shows that a large uptake in biomass could, under certain circumstances, lead to a minute increase in air pollution, but the policies in the Renewable Energy Strategy aim to mitigate this impact through the promotion of the right biomass technology in the right places."
But, Environmental Protection UK said that while it agrees with the need to increase amounts of renewable energy it feels that the current emissions standards are too low and could have a "significant" impact with an expansion of domestic biomass.
Ed Dearnley, policy officer, at Environmental Protection UK told NewEnergyFocus.com that managing the increase in biomass boilers would be essential.
"The impacts could be significant if biomass is allowed to go ahead willy-nilly.
"One idea for the RHI would be that you only get a payment if you meet the standards but we feel they are too low. Even if you have biomass boilers that meet these standards, you still have a large air quality impact."
He would like to see more joint schemes and targeted development - locating biomass schemes away from built-up areas, for example, where air pollution is less likely - but said that there are no means to encourage biomass towards rural locations.
"All local authorities have renewable energy targets for new builds. Unfortunately, we can't get them all paying into a pot to stick a nice big boiler on the outskirts."