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UK bioenergy industry responds to Heat and Buildings Strategy

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The UK’s biomass heat industry has urged the government to stop ignoring and excluding rural off-grid communities in heat decarbonisation plans.

The urgent call was made by the UK Pellet Council (UKPC) and Biomass Heat Works! following the announcement of the government’s Heat and Buildings Strategy was announced, including a £450 million (€533 million) boiler upgrade scheme and £5,000 (€5,900) grants for heat pumps.

With approximately 1.45 million rural off-grid homes unable to decarbonise their heating via the gas grid under current electrification policy routes, the UK biomass industry is urging ministers to stop overlooking their rural constituents, but instead, prioritise these hard-to-heat homes with a fit-for-purpose policy given they are among the ‘worst and dirtiest’ heating policies.

At least 70% of rural homes use fossil fuels such as oil, LPG, or coal as their primary heating source. This includes 422,000 properties out of the 1.45 million that will not be suited to ground or air source heat pumps (ASHPs) under current government policy because of their age, size, type of building or location.

These hard-to-heat homes are only suited to bioenergy/biomass – or more expensive electric, resistive heating, said the organisations. But from March 2022, the government has only allowed for a maximum of 350 properties across England and Wales to receive funding to convert to biomass.

Almost 99% of proposed future funding under the Clean Heat policy is being directed towards ASHP installations which generally favour new, well-insulated buildings in urban areas rather than rural off-grid communities. Therefore, this latest announcement leaves a significant number of homeowners and rural constituents still unable or with no clear route to switch to low-carbon solutions.

“This is very disappointing again for rural off-grid homeowners as there is still no government-backing or fit-for-purpose thinking or policy included in these announcements, despite the stark data and independent evidence that exists,” said Mark Lebus, chair of the UK Pellet Council. “They must be prioritised.

“57% of rural homes are still using fossil fuel which creates between 20-40% more CO2 emissions than natural gas in urban areas, and while approximately 95,000 of UK properties still use coal as their primary heating source, around 54,000 are in rural areas.”

Lebus added that a one-size-fits-all approach “simply will not work”. Considering the additional costs to retrofit ASHPs in older properties could add between £25,000 and £30,000 (€29,000 and €35,000) onto the total cost, it is likely that this number will be much higher, he said.

The UKPC has been calling for a dedicated rural off-grid heat decarbonisation policy supporting biomass and prioritising these homes for a long time, given that the current strategy is too urban-centric.

“This is about choice,” said Lebus, “with every homeowner able to choose the best renewable, low-carbon technology for their specific property.

“Other favoured electrification solutions, like heat pumps, will, of course, work best in an urban environment and we acknowledge that, but for rural areas they’re problematic, unworkable, or extremely costly for the homeowner before even being considered.”

Mark Anderson, director of sales and marketing at Vattenfall Heat UK, echoed some points made by the UKPC and Biomass Heat Works!, commenting: “There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to decarbonising heating however, so government, local authorities, developers and the supply chain need to identify which technologies will work best in different parts of the country, ensuring they can be delivered cost-effectively.

“Multiple technologies are ready to be deployed, such as district heating in densely populated areas. The best way forward is to create a market for those solutions now.

“Hydrogen has great potential to remove emissions from hard-to-treat sectors – possibly including space heating – but the priority must be to roll out solutions which are ready to go.”