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Why small-scale biomass is key

It wasn’t long ago that a relatively small number of sites produced virtually all the UK’s electricity. Today, however, with the prolifer­ation of renewables, almost every village in the UK will have some form of generating capacity – whether it is wind, solar or another technology.

A 2016 Institute for Public Pol­icy Research report found that more than 5,000 community energy groups have sprung up around the UK since 2008, pro­viding more than 60MW of renewable generating capacity.

This is transforming the energy landscape – and in many ways for the better.

The deployment of renewables is reducing reliance on large fossil fuel-burning power stations and helping the UK to meet its ambi­tious renewable energy targets. Using 1990 levels as a baseline, these targets commit to cutting emissions by 80% by 2050 and 15% of energy coming from renewable sources by 2020.

Alongside the environmental benefits, having a diverse energy portfolio also contributes to the UK’s energy security. If a big power plant goes offline, it threat­ens the whole system. If one of many small-scale generators go offline it is much less of an issue.

Small-scale energy production empowers local communities, bringing them closer to the source of their energy as well as providing the opportunity to benefit from community schemes.

Localised generation can also be cost-effective and developed quickly to meet electricity demands. Grandiose energy pro­jects require billions of pounds of investment and take years, even decades, to get off the ground.

A small-scale generation pro­ject on the other hand only has to go through the local planning sys­tem, and can be more easily mod­ified or replaced as technology develops.

And biomass has a crucial role to play. It generates clean energy (modern plants produce zero emissions) that is not reliant on the weather, unlike solar and wind, so it is much more depend­able. Importantly, biomass util-ises waste material that might otherwise be sent to landfill or incinerated, thereby affecting the environment negatively.

Small-scale biomass plants did not use to be economically viable. But companies, including HRS Energy, are increasingly able to offer innovative solutions that could make reliable, decentralised power generation a reality.

The company’s technology uses a bed of finely sieved sand, lime­stone or ash which is fluidised by a stream of high-pressure air. The behaviour of the bed is similar to that of a boiling liquid, with vigor­ous movement and mixing.

The mix of air, fuel and hot bed material creates rapid heat trans­fer and efficient combustion, and consequently high levels of effi­ciency and low emissions.

With this technology a range of biomass products and waste can be converted into useful heat and power, at a cycle efficiency of between 35% and 90%, depend­ing on the heat to power ratio.

All the technology and equip­ment required for one of HRS’s power generation plants fits into a compact area, requiring much less space than traditional biomass plants. This means the design is well suited to small-scale projects.

Taking in recycled wood, bio­mass plants can deliver a consist­ent output. Waste heat can be captured and reused, providing further efficiency and maximising resources.

As well as direct electricity gen­eration, biomass technology has alternative uses, particularly in industries which require heat and steam production.

Biomass plants can be fitted on to industrial facilities and used to create all the thermal energy they require, as well as the electricity for operation.

For example, a composting facility is using HRS technology on-site to produce the thermal heat it needs to dry out the com­post and the small amount of elec­tricity produced to power the rest of the facility.

While this does not directly pro­vide additional electricity to the grid, it means the composting facility is self-sufficient, only requiring biomass as a feedstock. This means it is not taking exces­sive amounts of energy from the grid or using fossil fuels to gener­ate energy on-site.

Fluidised combustion systems are well suited to such smaller schemes because the technology can cope with a wide range of fuel sources, alone or in combination, as well as those with high mois­ture content. This is ideal for industries which have high levels of waste, giving an on-site option for disposal.

On a larger scale, this type of biomass system can be used to generate heat for entire districts, ending the reliance on fossil fuel-generated energy and reducing emissions.

There are huge opportunities for biomass in the coming years. As we move towards a decentral­ised energy system, it offers a re- liable, clean generating option that can complement wind and solar and also produce heat, while reducing emissions in a cost-effec­tive way. 

Mark Wickham is the founder of HRS Energy

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