Biomass

While I was living at Sanford it went through an important transformation, a big project based on sorting out the farty and unreliable old heating system. All fourteen houses were refitted with solid fuel burners for their hot water and heating. Each pair of houses in the street now share a burner that feeds on kilos of little wood pellets. Not sure if it’s cheaper than gas but it’s supposedly carbon neutral, at least if the wood is genuine waste and/or from sustainably managed woodlands.

It’s easy to get pellets in the UK these days. In fact, there seems to be a growing biomass industry now with subsidies for growers of ‘bioenergy crops’ and some debate on the pros and cons of building large biomass power plants. Something to do with the ever rising price of gas and coal? Or, more hopefully, to do with a rising environmental consciousness? A hegemony of both, I suspect.

The pellets at Sanford were made of recycled sawdust and wood shavings from sawmills and forestry industry waste but biomass can come from all sorts of organic material – food waste, manure, straw and other crops, including hemp. Some plants are grown specifically to become biomass fuel as more commercial, industrial and public buildings, local authorities, prisons, and farms are being fitted with biomass boilers. Some places are even burning municipal waste arguing that it will help reduce landfill. I don’t like that idea, general waste likely contains all sorts of plastic and dodgy chemicals. Do they just throw all those black bin bags into the furnace? Well I suppose it must be a cheap fuel, only the cost of transporting it, and a potentially unlimited supply too.

The arguments against biomass mostly seem to revolve around a justified mistrust of commercial interests. There’s a danger that land will be lost to growing crops solely for burning, perpetuating large-scale monoculture. Or, as will be the case in a few UK biomass power plants, wood will be imported from half way round the world, potentially from unsustainable logging. It was great to get rid of the gas supply at Sanford and to know that we had collectively slashed our carbon footprint by switching to the biomass burners, but we knew our regular supply of pellets came from genuine waste or sustainably managed woodlands.

Imagine if you could burn your own waste to heat your home, if you could DIY your own biomass, use your rubbish as fuel for your heating and hot water. If you have enough garden waste. That is, if you have a garden. And can afford the few grand or so for a certified-for-use-in-smokeless-zones boiler/burner and it’s installation. And don’t live on the tenth floor of a council tower block.

biofuelwatch.org.uk

Biomess

‘Waste as Resource: The Unintended Consequences’ (treehugger.com)

‘UK may have to import rubbish for incinerators’ (independent.co.uk)

Moorlands and hills targeted to grow crops for biomass and biofuels (guardian.co.uk)

THE WOOD FUELLED HOME’ (Centre for Alternative Technology)

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