Using biomass to heat water: unconventional, but effective

Biomass heating is not usually associated with steam production. But with the right combination of expertise there could be major opportunities ahead, believes David Branch, business development manager at Cochran Ltd.

Boilers for industrial steam applications have been fired on fossil fuels. This has been the established wisdom. Although this predominantly remains the case, there is increasing interest in the use of biomass to generate steam. The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme has increased the growth rate of biomass installations, particularly in hot water applications.

In industrial steam applications, biomass can be part of an integrated solution, but not the whole solution. Biomass-fired boilers work best in situations where there is a steady load, which is more often the case with hot water applications than it is with steam. In a process steam application, there are usually peaks and troughs in demand, which a biomass-fired boiler will struggle to cope with. The recommended approach is to use a biomass boiler to output at a constant level and meet peaks in demand via a conventionally fuelled boiler.

The general lack of experience in operation and maintenance of industrial biomass boiler plant is one of the big challenges facing the market, especially when it comes to achieving the necessary levels of efficiency, reliability and safety. However, biomass remains popular and will continue to be chosen by many energy users.

Biomass improves fuel security through diversification. Fuel costs are also reduced and, with the continuation of the RHI, the payback period is short. Companies find their carbon footprint can be reduced by up to 95 per cent which helps them meet sustainability targets and enhances their environmental credentials.

However, investing in biomass requires careful consideration. The initial capital investment and resource to operate and maintain biomass installations are higher than they are for a conventional plant. A biomass plant should only be installed if the load demand and profile is appropriate. It should be engineered to optimise operation, not to maximise the RHI payments. Ideally it should be located to ease integration with current conventional boiler and distribution systems. A biomass system is expected to last 20 years or more, so it is important to consider the quality and availability of the fuel over the expected life span. The right technology provider will help to negate any of the associated risks.

To read the full article, see the latest January edition of EiBI by registering for free here.

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