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Proposed UK RHI reform a blow to modern biomass heat

In the United Kingdom (UK), the Department of Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has launched an open consultation on its proposed changes of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) to exclude further support for biomass installations in urban areas on the gas grid. The proposal aims to “minimise the air quality impacts of the RHI" as outlined in the government's draft Clean Air Strategy.

Modern biomass boilers, fitted with high-performance filters, achieve particulate emissions equivalent to that of conventional fossil fuelled boilers while making significant carbon savings.

As part of its Clean Air Strategy proposal published in May 2018, the UK government committed to consulting on restricting new biomass installations in urban areas. The proposed changes to the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) would apply to domestic and non-domestic biomass installations of all sizes, and also to biomass combined heat and power (CHP) installations. The proposed restriction does not include biogas as it does not give rise to the same level of particulate and other pollutant emissions as (solid) biomass combustion.

Counterproductive blanket ban

In a statement, the Wood Heat Association (WHA), the largest UK trade association for the modern biomass heating industry says that it fully supports the government’s objectives to address air pollution concerns. However, if enacted, the proposals will stop the installation of highly efficient and clean biomass boiler technologies benefitting those in urban areas and that a blanket ban rather than focusing on standards would inevitably be counterproductive.

Such a restrictive policy would limit the available options for the decarbonisation of heat, stopping innovation in regards to heat networks and slowing the government’s progress in meeting its legally binding carbon budgets.

The WHA highlights that modern biomass boilers are already strictly regulated, ensuring that their emissions are tightly controlled, with over 75 percent of boiler models emitting less than a third of their legal limits. The RHI itself already ensures that installations do not exceed strict emission levels, which must be met to receive any government support.

The latest proposed reforms to the RHI risks being a knee-jerk policy reaction to the air quality crisis. The industry has lobbied for many years for actions to ensure the very safest levels of emissions from biomass boilers in all parts of the UK, not just urban areas, said Neil Harrison, Chair of the WHA.

Harrison points out that modern biomass boilers, fitted with high-performance filters, achieve particulate emissions equivalent to that of conventional fossil fuelled boilers while making significant carbon savings.

The government should be promoting and enforcing quality standards, rather than applying a blanket ban. Such a ban would cut off one of the key options for the decarbonisation of heat in larger public and private sector buildings and would ignore experience from every other developed country which has seen the successful deployment of biomass heating across their economy. Urban air quality can be best minimised by addressing the much more significant emissions coming from transport and properly enforcing controls provided by Smoke Control Zones and other existing legislation, said Neil Harrison.

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