The rising price of energy and the need to reduce the amount of carbon used to produce it have led to an interest in renewable sources of energy in recent years and biomass boilers are now coming to the forefront as one of the more efficient ways to achieve this.

Alongside other forms of renewable energy, biomass boilers are considered to be highly efficient and a good way to produce energy using the resources already available to us. For businesses and households alike, the returns, savings and income can be substantial.

What is biomass?

Biomass is a word used to describe living or dead plant matter that can be efficiently burnt for energy. One of the most obvious examples is the wood from trees, but other plant life, food waste and industrial waste can be used. While this does release CO2 into the atmosphere, it is thought that due to the tree planting industry surrounding biomass fuels, the replacement trees more than account for the CO2 emitted. This makes biomass a carbon neutral way of heating our homes and businesses.

What is a biomass boiler?

Whether it is a simple wood-fired stove or a full separate biomass boiler, the concept is approximately the same. It is simply a device used to burn wood (or other materials) and to gather, concentrate and use the energy produced in that process. It can be a domestic appliance used primarily to heat the home or a commercial, larger scale burner, but it is the fact that it is attached to a boiler system that makes it a biomass boiler and not a simple wood-burner.

There are two main types of biomass boiler systems:

  • Stoves/boilers – release heat into the room and heat your home via the use of a central heating system. The heat that comes from burning wood pellets or similar is concentrated and released into the heating system to provide central heating.
  • Anaerobic digestion – a commercial use of waste materials to turn it into a gas used for heat and power. These are usually larger scale and not suitable for domestic purposes.

The benefits of biomass boilers

Lower heating bills: Most people will install a biomass boiler simply because they want to lower the cost of heating their home and it is certainly possible to significantly reduce heating bills. This is particularly the case if your home is currently heated by oil.

Income: Anyone who has installed a biomass boiler (either domestic or business) is entitled to claim the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) from the government. This tariff offers a per kW price for a period of seven years following the installation.

Lower carbon footprint: People who choose a biomass boiler will not only save money, they will also be helping to save the planet. While the system does produce CO2, it is also considered low carbon as the trees planted to sustain the process outweigh those burned. This is especially true if the wood is locally sourced and free from transport costs. You could save as much as 14.5 tonnes of carbon a year based on replacing the solid fuel you currently use for heating.

How much will a biomass boiler cost?

It has to be said that a biomass boiler is not a cheap option, but with the RHI it is possible to pay off the system in just a few short years – making it an excellent investment. There are also a few ways you can get help to pay for the system. The costs will vary depending on the type of biomass boiler you choose.

  • A biomass pellet stove or log stove will cost around £2,000 to £4,500 including installation.
  • An automatically fed pellet boiler will cost between £14,000 and £19,000 with a manually fed system costing slightly less. This includes installation and the building of a place to store the fuel.
  • You will need to add the cost of the wood pellets and this can range from £190 per tonne if you source it locally or buy in bulk. You may be able to purchase simple wood logs from a local farmer at a much lower cost but these are less efficient.

You may be able to get help paying for your biomass boiler via the government’s Green Deal Home Improvement Fund. This offers a cash incentive for certain measures carried out to improve the energy efficiency of your home. This fund is usually only open for short periods of time as the government releases the funds – so it is important to apply swiftly when the scheme is open.

You can also get a loan via the Green Deal which you will pay off through your lowered energy bills. This is currently at 7% interest which can be higher than other forms of borrowing, so it is important that you search the market for the best deal for you.

Ongoing costs and maintenance

In much the same way as you would regularly clean out your open fire, it is important that you keep your biomass boiler and stove clean and free of ash. Because of the type of fuel burnt and the efficiency levels, the amount of ash is generally quite low, but you should check the ash bin at least once a week. If burning logs, this will need to be done daily.

If you have chosen a self cleaning unit it will automatically collect the ash – but these still need to be cleaned regularly or they will fail. This will involve shutting the biomass boiler down and completing the clean out.

You should also carry out a twice yearly check and clean of the flue if yours is a wood burning stove or boiler. This will prevent build up of soot and will discover birds nests or other material in the chimney flue. You should also have your whole system checked by a professional at least once per year.

You may be able to complete most of this cleaning and maintenance yourself, but regular checks by a professional will incur a cost that should be taken into account.

Will my biomass boiler save or make me money?

Both! It does depend entirely on the system you choose, but even a simple wood burner in your living room can offer significant savings on your energy costs and may also be eligible for the RHI. If you apply before the end of 2014, you will be able to claim slightly more under this system. Take a look at this table for more (the figures are from the Energy Saving Trust and are based on per year amounts).

Your current heating system Savings on your energy bills RHI for 2014 RHI for 2015
Electricity £340 – £650 £2,135 – £3,390 £1,925 – £3,050
Oil £335 – £470 £2,135 – £3,390 £1,925 – £3,050
LPG £335 – £470 £2,135 – £3,390 £1,925 – £3,050
Coal £950 – £1,435 £2,135 – £3,390 £1,925 – £3,050
Gas £25 – £80 £2,135 – ££3,390 £1,925 – £3,050

As you can see, biomass boilers really are best for people who are currently not able to get gas in their area. However, even for those with gas central heating, the RHI remains the same, making it still a worthwhile investment over the long term.

The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI)

We have already mentioned the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) a few times in this article, but it is important that you understand exactly how it works as it will be an important part of the decision making process before you install a biomass boiler.

The RHI is simply a tariff paid by the government to anyone who has installed a renewable form of heating into their home. It is designed to encourage the use of these technologies and is available for both domestic and non-domestic (business) use. The rates of return are currently set at 12.2p per kilowatt of energy produced.

The RHI is able to be used for biomass boilers and for stoves that are used primarily to heat the home and not for cooking. The stoves must be attached to a boiler system to qualify. Your home will need to be assessed under the Green Deal Assessment scheme to ensure it meets efficiency standards and the system will need to be installed by someone who is registered under the Microgeneration Certification Scheme.

You will need to show that your home has an Energy Performance Certificate that meets minimum standards and that loft and wall cavity insulation has been installed where it is deemed necessary.

If you have already installed your biomass boiler you can still apply for the tariff provided you meet the above criteria.

The Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS)

The MCS takes European and UK standards and applies them to the installation of energy efficiency products in homes and businesses. It is supported by the Department of Energy and Climate Change and is recognised as a mark of quality when it comes to installations of products like biomass boilers. For this reason, it is part of the requirement for the RHI.

It currently covers installations of biomass boilers with heat generation capacity of up to 45kW which is considered plenty for a standard home.

For anyone who is wanting to access the RHI when installing a biomass boiler it is vitally important that you source a fitter who is registered with the MCS. You can usually do this by a quick search of the MCS website. This gives you peace of mind that the installer has been checked that they meet the standards set under the scheme and will give you a guarantee of the work carried out.

Free biomass boilers

There are now a number of companies in the UK who will install a biomass boiler in your home for free in return for them receiving the RHI on the installation. These companies will take care of the installation and maintenance costs and you receive the benefits of lowered energy bills in your home.

This type of scheme is very profitable for the installer who can expect a huge return on their investment over the course of the seven years of the RHI scheme. However for the homeowner the profits are minimal. If your home currently runs on oil or fossil fuels, you will see a good reduction in your home heating bills – but will miss out on the real returns associated with the RHI.

Biomass boilers for businesses

The installation of a biomass boiler for your business can have a number of positive effects for both the image and the profitability of your business. While the initial costs may be significant especially for the larger anaerobic digesters, the long term returns can be worthwhile.

Businesses in the UK are expected by the government to do their bit when it comes to reducing carbon emissions and the installation of a biomass boiler or anaerobic digester can go a good way towards ensuring your business is meeting the government expectations.

  • Most businesses find that they spend huge amounts dealing with waste. A biomass boiler may be able to efficiently turn that waste into energy.
  • Most businesses are concerned with their corporate social responsibility and the use of a biomass boiler can improve the image of the business.
  • Businesses are entitled to the RHI and it is estimated that the return on investment can be as high as 12% – a great return for any business.
  • For some businesses the cost in terms of carbon are huge when it comes to heating premises. A biomass boiler can drastically cut this down, improving the carbon footprint of the business.
  • This can be further improved by using the natural waste of the business as fuel.

Biomass boilers: things to consider

The fact is that while a biomass boiler can be a great idea there are drawbacks and positives and it is important to think these through carefully before making your purchase. Bear in mind the following points.

  • A small stove or wood burner may look attractive but it may not produce as much heat as you think. It may only be useful for heating the room it is in and may not be as efficient as you hoped – even if it is attached to a boiler. However they are known to improve the value of your home.
  • A biomass boiler designed to heat an entire house takes up space. If you choose a pellet style burner that has an automatic feeder it will need to be stored in a cellar or an outhouse near your home. This will need to be well built and secure and will add to the cost. This may incur planning permission implications.
  • The fuel for your biomass burner will need to be stored. Buying in bulk is cheaper, but will require a dry space for it to be kept. It will take up space in your garden or garage.
  • The RHI runs only for seven years and while this is long enough to cover your investment costs, the tariff income will not be ongoing. The savings on your energy bills will be ongoing, however.

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