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Biomass needs better regulation

Biomass heating is one of the fastest growing renewable energy sectors, with some estimates suggesting the global industry will triple by 2030.

However, this sharply rising popularity hides some serious issues in the supply chain, which need to be addressed urgently to protect contractors and legitimate biomass suppliers alike.

The problem is that there is no national accreditation scheme to support heating systems above 45kW, meaning the vast majority of the commercial biomass sector is completely unregulated.

Installations below 45kW are governed by the Micro Certification Scheme (MCS), which provides effective regulation for this end of the market, yet commercial scale projects such as hospitals, schools and factories face no regulatory restrictions whatsoever.

Lack of regulation

While there are many highly experienced biomass subcontractors in the market, the lack of regulation poses significant problems as it opens the door for less scrupulous, inexperienced suppliers to go unchallenged.

No official training or qualifications are required meaning potentially anyone could set themselves up as a commercial biomass installer, without any real checks on installation standards or safety.

For main contractors this is a serious issue as without proper regulation, there are no assurances of quality or expected performance level, and very little recompense should problems arise.

The truly breathtaking aspect of this situation is that it is exactly these large boilers at the commercial end of the scale that require the most expertise in order to ensure safe and effective installations – yet to date this fact has been ignored by government policymakers.

The biomass sector has been left to self-regulate, pushing some suppliers to take their own steps to protect the long-term reputation of the industry.

While many recognise the value of self-imposed standards – approved installer schemes for example, with strict vetting and extensive training procedures – this is far from uniform across the industry and all such schemes are managed independently.

Standardisation needed

Consistent and legally-binding standardisation is desperately needed, not only to ensure responsible levels of safety but also to deliver effective installations that function at maximum efficiency.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change has estimated that the difference between expected and real-life system performance can be as much as 40 per cent below maximum efficiency if biomass heating systems are not designed, installed and controlled properly.

For contractors looking to outsource biomass installation, this should be a key consideration when it comes to choosing an appropriate supplier.

Opting for the cheapest and possibly least experienced supplier is often a false economy, as any initial savings will be lost very quickly if the end system does not operate efficiently. 

With many clients now incorporating minimum energy efficiency and operational standards into their tender requirements, failing to meet the specified levels can have severe consequences for main contractors – sadly, there have already been instances where clients have taken contractors through legal proceedings because renewable energy systems did not live up to demand.

An industry-wide accreditation scheme would help raise the standards of training and knowledge throughout the sector, providing the first steps towards minimising this sort of occurrence and offering better protection for contractors.

In the meantime, opting for established suppliers with a long experience of designing complete systems is the best way contractors can ensure consistent standards and safeguard themselves against any future problems.

Paul Clark is managing director of Rural Energy

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