Solid Biomass - a Renewable solution to rural household heating

By Sean Kelly, MEP (pictured)
Spring 2021

The future of the European economy, and indeed the collective welfare of our citizens, requires a comprehensive response to the climate crisis and a transition to a low carbon economy.

The task is clear, but the solutions to a multifaceted, cross cutting and geographically specific problem requires the need to consider the full range of low carbon technologies, their associated performance, cost and environmental benefits. Eco-innovation and awareness of climate change has brought about a cultural shift in Europe. Yet, what is clear is that if we fail to ensure fairness and inclusivity in our transition, not only will we not meet our climate targets, but risk exasperating inequality and create divisions that could threaten the very structures of the Union itself.

When we speak about emissions reduction, we often think about agriculture, the energy sector and transport. Yet heating represents around half of Europe's final energy consumption with the vast majority of homes still using fossil fuels, i.e. oil, gas, and coal. In fact, the main use of energy by households is for heating their homes, accounting for 63.6% of final energy consumption in the residential sector.

There is a range of new and innovative ways to reduce our emissions, and to achieve a more just transition we must remember that there is no,"one size fits all," solution. Meaning that we need to take into account the specific conditions facing local communities and individual households, and that includes energy sources. In rural communities for example, we need to support a range of low carbon heating technologies beyond just heat pumps.

There has been a lot of focus placed on energy efficiency of homes, and rightly so. But the other side of the coin to reducing our carbon footprint is by switching to renewable energy, yes wind and solar technologies, but also bioenergy, such as solid biomass or liquid biofuels.

There is no doubt that heat pumps will be a key technology, particularly for new builds. However, for some households installation will require a major heating system change, which could prove to be both expensive and disruptive, and just may not be possible for some people.

The "just" in just transition means that we have to bring everyone along, and for some rural areas and households, the best avenue for decarbonisation comes in the form of biomass - fuel made up of plant based organisms and typically comes in the form of wood chips, logs and pellets. The real trick with biomass boilers is that they operate more like conventional oil and gas boilers as they burn fuel but with vastly less, and cleaner, emissions.

When switching your home to biomass you will need a direct replacement of the boiler, but there likely would not need to be any further works needed for the internal pipe and radiator systems. Not only is switching to Biomass less disruption, with significantly lower upfront costs to that of heat pumps, but wood pellets are readily available and economically affordable solutions to phase out fossil fuels.

Decarbonisation is the goal here, and when considering a home's characteristics, its location and available technologies - biomass can be a very good option. Now, I am not saying it is the right solution for every household, but particularly, for rural areas, it offers some attractive possibilities in emissions reduction that are coupled with the added bonus of lower running energy costs. It essence it is a renewable solution to household heating in rural areas that are not on the gas grid and would otherwise use oil or even kerosene.

We must not also neglect the positives to rural air quality, which receives far less recognition than urban areas, and often falls under the common misconception that it is free from pollution.

The utilisation of bioenergy more broadly can have a direct beneficial impact on the local economy, with the likes of Anaerobic Digestion, that can create a stable revenue stream for anyone supplying feedstock as well as providing a benefit to the local community and stimulating agriculture. Wood pellets too, with sufficient demand, sawmills can utilize excess wood for pellet production, in turn creating additional jobs and stimulating value-added economic activity for the region.

This is not say that the likes of biomass boilers do not have their limitations, they do. They require larger space than gas or oil boilers as well as room for the pellet storage. However, for small-scale projects, they really provide a credible option to decarbonise, and that is why we should continue to provide incentives for the effective usage of biomass to allow consumers overcome initial capital investment and facilitation of local supply chains to meet demand. In essence, households can use locally sourced fuel instead of imported gas or oil that will increase the security of their energy supply as well as cutting costs.

The cost of heating homes has become a heavier burden for many households. Even before the pandemic hit, over 30 million Europeans struggled to pay their energy bills. There needs to be support given to those individuals to ensure they are not left behind, and this comes in numerous different ways at EU, national and local level.

Building renovations in the broader scheme will be crucial if we are to meet our goal of climate neutrality by 2050, but we must ensure that as policymakers we provide a framework that is flexible enough to cater for the most effi cient technologies and systems that take into account local and regional characteristics.

For many, solid Biomass will be the best option, and we should encourage its use when it is.

Seán Kelly MEP has been an MEP for Ireland South since 2009 and is the leader of the Fine Gael delegation in the European Parliament. A member of the European Parliament's Industry, Research and Energy Committee, Kelly has worked extensively on renewable energy and energy efficiency policy.