Biofuels – are we missing an opportunity?

Energy supply continues to be at the forefront of government debate, with the latest initiatives including grants for insulation to help lower fuel bills.
But which direction are we heading with regard to renewable energy? According to the government’s latest renewable energy consultation published in June this year, the picture is still far from clear.
Renewable energy is key to our low-carbon energy future. As well as the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the UK needs to diversify energy sources in order to reduce dependency on imported oil and gas. However, this will require a massive change in the way we produce our energy if we are to meet the EU-wide target of 20% renewable energy by 2020.
In 2006, only 1.5% of our energy came from renewable sources. If current policies continue this will only rise to 5% by 2020. To get 15% of energy from renewables is a ten fold increase in renewable energy consumption from where we are now.
To be able to deliver this level of change in renewable energy in such a short period of time will need action at all levels.
A new focus
Up until now, liquid biofuels for heating has received very little attention. Whilst the government’s Road Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) has driven forward the use of biofuel in cars and lorries, there has been no focus on biofuels for heating. Instead the government has concentrated on biomass, solar and air/ground source heat pumps.
But liquid biofuels for heating could make a major contribution to reducing carbon emissions. Heating accounts for the largest single proportion of the UK’s final energy demand at 49%, and the largest proportion of our carbon emissions at 47%. However, estimates put the actual amount of heat generated from renewable sources at only 0.6%. So there is an area of massive opportunity here for the government to reduce carbon emissions.
Unlike energy sources such as electricity, heat cannot travel for long distances without significant loss and expense. Therefore, deployment has to be at a local and individual level.
Around 10% of heating installations probably use oil. In most domestic situations it’s the fuel of choice for rural areas which don’t have access to the mains gas supply. For many commercial and industrial installations, oil or dual fuel burners are chosen for running costs or security of fuel supply.
Liquid biofuels for heating are already available, and Riello has been working on testing burners with liquid biofuel for over 18 months now, and the results so far are very good. Perhaps the reason that biofuels for heating are not receiving much government focus is the lack of an official fuel specification, but this is being addressed by a joint project between the ICOM Energy Association and the Oil Firing Technical Association (OFTEC).
Cost issues
One of the issues the government raises in it’s energy consultation is the cost involved to switch over to renewable energy such as biomass, solar and heat pumps. End users may have to invest in new plant and equipment, which the government estimates could cost around £5bn. And the emphasis could well be on end users to fund this capital investment.
However, Riello feels we are missing a huge opportunity here. Rather than ripping out your existing boiler to replace it with biomass, an existing oil or dual fuel boiler could easily be converted to run on liquid biofuel. The opportunities for carbon savings in the retrofit market are huge. Whilst many of the new regulations address new build, we also need to be looking at how we can convert existing plant to reduce emissions in a cost effective way.
Perhaps another reason why the government has not focused on biofuels for heating is the race to use them for transport. There has also been some unfair negative press surrounding the supply of biofuels. The recent report on biofuels by Ed Gallagher, chair of the Renewables Fuel Agency, was sensationalised in the press. However, the report did not condemn the use of biofuels, but stated that they could help reduce carbon emissions if managed properly and from a sustainable source which does not compromise food supply.
Research has shown that biofuels used for heating could have a more positive effect on reducing carbon emissions than if used for transport. If the current RTFO obligation remains in place, it would take 1.9 million hectares of arable land to produce the necessary crops, and only result in 1 million tonne reduction in carbon emissions. However, if the same amount of land was used to produce liquid biofuel for domestic heating, it would cater for all of the homes in the UK which currently use oil. In addition it would reduce carbon emissions by 7.5 million tonnes.
Meeting targets
Riello believes that in order to make the massive step change needed to meet our 20% renewables target by 2020, the government must introduce a renewables obligation for heating. And indeed this is something that is being considered in the latest consultation.
There is already a renewables obligation for electricity which has been in place since 2002. It has seen electricity generation from renewable sources rise from under 2% in 2001 to 4.4% in 2006.
However, financial mechanisms are needed to encourage a large increase in renewable heat, with more effective support for small-scale heat and electricity technologies in homes and businesses. The planning system will also need to evolve with guidelines on renewable heat generation, but we also need to be looking at existing plant, and how we can easily lower carbon emissions by looking at the use of liquid biofuels.
Rather than looking to use biofuels for transport, we should be looking to use biofuels for heating. Research on electric cars is already well advanced, and would allow for central generation from a renewable source. It would also help reduce air and noise pollution.
So before the next round of legislation is determined which takes us down the route of high capital investment in biomass, solar or heat pumps, we should be looking at how we can adapt existing plant and equipment to lower carbon emissions. Energy efficiency and fuel usage are key elements to this, but we also need to be taking seriously the role that biofuel can play.

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