The Renewable Heat Incentive and clean and dirty renewables

The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) is a critical environmental measure. Heat for homes, businesses commerce and industry produces about half of the United Kingdom’s building emissions. There have been a number of measures concerning electricity, but heat was left on the back burner by the last Labour government and the present administration has by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and the Minister in charge of the RHI, Mr Greg Barker, all promised that the Renewable Heat Incentive should be in place by 10th June.

The incentive will make it profitable for people to install solar water heating, heat pumps and biomass boilers, and in these days of rising energy prices and rising accumulated greenhouse gas emissions that incentive will be very important.

The industry was initially promised that the details of the RHI would be published on 10th December, and then in early January. For the RHI to start in June there details have to go through a statutory 12 week consultation period before they become law.

I have no doubt that the incentive has been already fully designed for some time for solar heat and for heat pumps. The problem seems to be that the standards for biomass boilers and plants have not been completely agreed upon.

As regular readers of this blog will know I have been pointing out that biomass, while renewable, has a great environmental disadvantage. It uses energy in its creation of heat which is a bulky fuel with a low calorific heat content, which in turn means you have large storage and transport costs (with the associated emissions) and worse of all there will inevitably be problems with air quality; the biomass boilers will crated carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide from incomplete combustion and other polluting gases and if large amounts of biomass boilers and plants are installed we run the real risk of rapidly declining air quality, bringing us back to the days when there were no smokeless zone and pollution filled the lungs of people and blighted their surrounding buildings. The problem of biomass air emissions standards is not new, and one about which I have been constantly warning for three years so the government is right to approach this matter carefully. I am surprised that the work has not already been done.

However, it strikes me that to delay the RHI for want of agreement on biomass air standards penalises both the environment and solar water and space heating, which are virtually emission free and which is a clean technology at the expense of a very dirty technology indeed. In the meantime the environment suffers for want of an incentive.

To my simple mind the solution is obvious. Go very carefully with biomass but do not hold up installations of solar thermal and heat pumps. There is no reason why the incentive and consultation process should not be started right away for solar and heat pumps (I suggest RHI stage 1) and biomass boilers and plants brought in at a later stage (RHI stage 2) after the government has assured itself as to what the appropriate level of emissions are for burning woods, in order to protect the health of the people.

 

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