Part 3 of building a carbon neutral distillery – meeting the energy challenge.

Steam from biomass – making it work

Biomass – the practicalities

Many have tried to run a distillery from a biomass boiler; some have struggled; and a few have failed, given up and gone home… but others have succeeded, and the industry has learnt from all of these examples – good and bad. 

The overriding priority when considering biomass for a distillery is to make sure it’s done safely. Distillery operators are expert in managing the hazards they are familiar with, including those associated with oil and gas fuelling, but biomass presents different hazards – often unfamiliar to distillers. Seeking expert support in the design, commissioning and operation of the boiler system is therefore essential.

The introduction of the RHI tempted lots of people into the sector – not all of them expert in the hazards or practicalities of biomass boiler systems. The flood of installations in the following years led to a significant number of installations which were not up to standard, including some dangerous examples. This resulted in some newsworthy accidents and tarnished the reputation of the sector as a whole. The cowboys who dominated the sector at its peak have mostly left town, but they left behind a legacy of poorly designed and under-performing biomass systems.

However, this shouldn’t be viewed as a failing on the part of biomass as a low carbon technology, but the result of an incentive scheme which was as poorly designed as some of the installations it triggered. Most of the companies still in the biomass sector know and understand the hazards, and how a project should be designed and implemented safely. The Combustion Engineering Association’s BG05 “Guidance on the Design and Operation of Biomass Systems” is a great place to get an appreciation of the types of hazards I refer to here.

As well as a safe boiler, distillers want a boiler that works in their application, and without applying specific knowledge, there are some well-known ways a biomass boiler can struggle in distillery service.

Offsite fabrication of a biomass steam boiler plant

Timing is everything

As anyone who’s sat round a campfire knows, there’s a delay between putting a log on the fire and feeling the benefit of it. It’s a characteristic of all solid fuels, and this delay certainly isn’t ideal in a distillery application – when the operator asks for steam to the still, he means now, not in 20 minutes. There is a similar problem when the still run is complete – the fuel on the grate continues to burn, and the heat may be wasted if the distillery doesn’t need it at that specific moment. 

In an attempt to cater for distilleries’ notoriously “peaky” steam demand, many biomass boilers have been fitted in parallel (duty/assist) with the existing fossil fired boiler. Typically, the design intent was for the biomass boiler to provide the base load, leaving the fossil fuelled boiler to pick up the peaks in demand. However, the limited turndown capacity of boilers can mean that the fossil boiler spends a lot of time on minimum fire, taking a large part of the distillery’s demand, reducing the fossil fuel displacement and actually leaving the peaks to be taken up either by the biomass system or by the fossil boiler cycling on and off. Neither is ideal.

In partnership with engineers in continental Europe who have been designing biomass systems for over 50 years, re:heat have implemented and proven a number of techniques for controlling the fire in the furnace and the boiler pressure to iron-out the mismatch between steam supply and demand. This means the peaks and troughs which are common in distillery applications can be met by a single biomass boiler – without the need for backup plant.

When foul isn’t fair

Gas boilers hardly ever need cleaning, oil boilers maybe once a year. Biomass boilers which are not properly controlled can need much more frequent cleaning due to build-up of tar or soot in the furnace or boiler, particularly when they are burning “difficult” fuels such as wet woodchip or draff.

Furred boiler tubes from running a dry wood boiler on wet fuel

If a “difficult” fuel is readily available at a low cost, then regular cleaning may be justifiable, but in a well-designed biomass boiler system, cleaning twice a year is adequate for most industrial users.

A low carbon footprint can come with a big actual footprint…

It’s an inescapable fact that a biomass store is bigger than an oil tank or a gas governor. If your site is tight, then it might be a struggle to fit a biomass system onto it, but there are usually approaches which can be adopted to manage this. For example, it may be that the fuel supply chain could be tweaked to minimise on-site storage space requirement, or it might be an application for a pellet fired boiler. Certified sustainable pellets are widely available from manufacturers in the UK, which will keep your environmental credentials intact.

It sounds obvious, but a good fuel supply is crucial to successful operation of a biomass boiler. Less obvious is that the fuel supply should be planned out well before the boiler is operational. The biomass fuel supply chain can be daunting to those unfamiliar with it, but don’t worry – there are plenty of people out there who can make it work for you. It doesn’t need to be any more difficult than buying oil, but there are some bear traps to avoid and forward planning will save stress, time and cost.

Biomass boiler plant room under construction, Brora Distillery, October 2020

Summary

There’s no getting away from the fact that distilling is an energy intensive process, and that up to 90% of all the energy used in a distillery can be in the form of steam and heat. You can certainly reduce the energy demand by implementing heat recovery strategies, but there is always going to be a need for heat input. No single heat supply solution is the right one for every application, and no single solution can provide for the whole industry. 

It’s clear, however, that biomass-fired boilers are one of the most technically and economically viable options currently available, and in many cases the only low carbon option which is likely to work for a distillery. Properly designed systems which use high quality equipment and proven technology can be the beating heart of a distillery, and with a realistic lifespan of 25 years or more on the right boiler, it’s important to get it right.

re:heat’s senior team includes forestry, biomass boiler and distillery engineering professionals, meaning we’re ideally placed to assess or implement a biomass-fired solution for your distillery, or to advise on any aspect of the project lifecycle through our consultancy arm. So, if you’re still burning dinosaurs to make whisky, then call us – we can help.

Part 2 of building a carbon neutral distillery… meeting the energy challenge.

Biomass for heat – the sustainability debate

Our Principal Engineer, Andrew McGhee, shares the second part of his article on carbon neutral distilling, addressing the common question “is biomass really sustainable?”

Woodchip produced from sustainably managed UK forests

There has been a debate around this question which has gone on and on for years.  Those arguing that wood is not sustainable point out that there may actually be more CO2 coming out of the chimney of a wood fuelled boiler than one running on oil or gas.  They may dismiss the argument about re-absorption of CO2 as trees grow by saying that it takes decades for this to happen, and that this is too long in the current climate emergency.  In this equation, the CO2 in the atmosphere for the time period between release and absorption by growing trees is termed the carbon debt.  All of this misses one critical fact – that UK forests are growing faster than we are felling them.  So in actual fact, the carbon storage in UK forests is increasing, year on year, by about 20-30 million tonnes of stored CO2 equivalent per annum. [https://www.forestresearch.gov.uk/documents/7435/Complete_FS2019_zIuGIog.pdf].

So, while we are nibbling at one edge of the UK managed plantation forest, felling about 2% per year, the forest is growing in other areas faster than we are felling it.  The CO2 released when wood is burnt in 2030 is not absorbed 20 years later – it’s being absorbed right now by UK forests.  The fact that the UK managed forest sector is putting on weight is not – of course – just because of people using wood fuel.  But wood fuel is a part of the overall market for forestry products and helps to sustain a healthy and growing forestry industry in the UK.  These facts are recognised and supported by governments across the world, and by supra-national bodies such as the EU and UN.

There is another argument which is often made – that we shouldn’t grow trees just to burn them. Well the truth is – we generally don’t.  Wood fuels’ place in the overall forest products market is widely mis-understood.  The main product of almost all forestry is saw log – big diameter logs which are sent to sawmills to be made into timber for construction, fencing, furniture etc.  This is where foresters want their felled trees to go – it’s the highest value, most lucrative destination for felled timber.  Next on the pecking order for timber is wood destined for pallet manufacture and fencing. Then it’s packaging products, panel board manufacture and paper pulp.

Only when local markets for these products have been supplied do the leftovers go for fuel.  The material typically destined for fuel is rejected by the sawmills as unsuitable, too small for sawmills to bother with, or offcuts and sawdust from the sawmills.  There are exceptions which depend on local market conditions, but generally the only whole trees that go for fuel are from forestry thinnings – when small and weak trees are removed from a growing forest to make space for the strong to grow.  Stands of low-quality timber – unsuitable for sawmilling – may also be harvested for fuel in particular circumstances, such as during the Coronavirus pandemic when demand for saw logs has been very low, or when no alternative local market exists.

As the recent (2018) UNECE report into wood energy highlights, “wood fuel removals can offer important ecological, economic and social benefits if forests are well managed”, which are in addition to the carbon benefits which accrue from not burning fossil fuels.  This should be particularly reassuring for those sourcing their fuel from the UK, as we have one of the best established national forest management frameworks anywhere in the world.

Low grade timber awaiting collection in Morayshire

The EU also supports the use of wood as a low carbon fuel via the Renewable Energy Directive, but the WWF were critical of this position, focusing on the actual CO2 coming out of the stack of a boiler house and ignoring the bigger picture.  Read deeper into the WWF position paper though, and they acknowledge that the use of wood for fuel is appropriate as long as it is not wood that could have been used in solid form (and so locking up the carbon it contains).  They recommend using wood for construction, and only using material unsuitable for a higher purpose as fuel.  As I have discussed, this is basically what the forestry products industry does anyway.

I have only discussed the domestic UK timber market here because this is the material generally used to feed industrial boilers of the type applicable to distilleries.  There is also significant import of fuel wood into the UK in the form of wood pellets from the USA and the Baltic States.  This import supplies the Drax power station and some of the pellet demand for UK domestic and small commercial properties.  For distilleries, wood chip is usually the preferred fuel, though in particular circumstances a pellet boiler may be chosen.

Part three will cover the practicalities of using biomass to raise steam for a distillery or any other process load.

RE:HEAT DURING COVID-19

Most of the team at re:heat will be operating as normal during the lockdown period. We will endeavour to keep as many of our customers systems operational during this period, only undertaking essential works. Our consultancy work continues, and we’re always pleased to hear from new and old clients with enquiries relating to new system design, installation, procurement, improvement, optimisation and remedial works.

Our dedicated engineers are providing breakdown cover and some servicing where it’s necessary, taking all the necessary precautions to stay safe. We have introduced new bespoke systems, including the production of site-specific risk assessments and method statements to deal with on-site operations which will help our team, and our customers stay as safe as possible during any operational work.

Please do get in touch with our service team service@reheat.uk.com if you’d like to book a service in or if you’re having a problem with your biomass system, we’ll continue to do our best to help. Whilst our Head Office in Alnwick is temporarily closed, we have a call forwarding service, so if you call the office number (01665 665 040) then please leave a message and one of our team will be back in touch as soon as we can.

For anything else you think we might be able to help with, please get in touch on info@reheat.uk.com and as ever we’ll do our best to help.

Stay safe and we look forward to continuing to work with you in the future.

re:heat

COVID-19 RE:HEAT ASSISTING SCOTTISH GOVT.

re:heat have had an urgent request from the Scottish Government to monitor the health and robustness of the wood fuel supply chain to meet the heating needs of wood fuel users in Scotland in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.
 
We are gathering opinion from a range of companies involved in the biomass fuel supply chain in Scotland and I’d like to ask for your input to that process. We then collate that information for the Scottish Government to keep them abreast of the state of the market. Ultimately this is to ensure continuity of fuel supply for users dependent on wood fuel – for example there are a number of care homes, hospitals etc which are dependent on either chip or pellet supplies for their heating needs. This process also allows the industry to let government know what help and support is needed.
 
Can we ask for your input / opinion please, as follows –

  1. Are you aware of any immediate impacts of the Covid 19 outbreak on supply chains, e.g. staff off sick, contractors being denied access to sites, etc.
  2. What impact, if any, do you think the outbreak will have on woodfuel supply chains from the forest to end users? What impact is this having / do you expect it to have on price?
  3. Where do you think there might be any particular pinch points?
  4. What plans are you putting in place to protect your own staff and to ensure business continuity?
  5. Any other useful thoughts or comments?


Please note that this provides an excellent opportunity to let the government know what the industry needs. Please take advantage of this opportunity to support our industry through this difficult time by replying to this consultation request. Participants will be emailed a redacted copy of the memo for information.
 
Thanks in anticipation of your input. For more information, or to respond to the consultation, please email:

covid19@reheat.uk.com
 
re:heat

We’re Recruiting!

A fantastic career opportunity has arisen for a recent graduate to join our team.  The role will be based in Alnwick, a pleasant market town situated 40 minutes north of Newcastle.

Biomass is Europe’s and the UK’s largest renewable energy sector and this role provides an opportunity to grow not only your own career, but to help the sector continue to increase its contribution to meeting the UK’s low carbon ambitions.

There will be a requirement to travel in the UK and potentially overseas.

Ben providing consultancy and research advice

Essential Skills and Qualifications

To be considered for this role you will ideally have a BSc or MSc in any of the following subjects or related disciplines : Renewable Energy, Forestry, Energy Engineering and Sustainability, Sustainable Buildings, Geography, Environmental Science, Mechanical/Electrical Engineering, Environmental Management or Economics.  However, we would consider any recent graduate with the right attitude and approach, or potentially someone with a few years experience in an unrelated field that is seeking to move into a growth industry.

Full details of the role can be found in the job description below.

Renewable Energy Consultant Job Description

Vacancy for Service Administrator

re:heat have a vacancy for a Service Administrator based at our office in Alnwick.  The role has been created to support the growth of our service and maintenance activities in the biomass energy sector across the UK.

The ideal candidate will have experience in a similar setting and will be comfortable working in a technical engineering environment.  They will also be IT literate, highly organised, pro-active and an excellent communicator.

We offer flexible hours, a competitive salary and a stimulating working environment with a  company which is committed to being at the forefront of the renewable energy industry.

For more information please download the job description here : Service Administrator Job Description

Or you can email us on hello@reheat.uk.com or call us on 01665 665 040.

Barkers of Northallerton on choosing biomass and re:heat

Barkers Distribution Centre

Barkers of Northallerton is going green with a custom designed, environmentally friendly heating system, thanks to the expertise of Alnwick firm, re:heat.

The Barkers Home store on Yafforth Road is renowned across North Yorkshire and beyond for selling exceptional furniture, furnishings and fittings. Deliveries are a vital part of the operation and that’s where the Distribution Warehouse on Standard Way in Northallerton comes in.

Sean Spence, Distribution Manager, explains “We wanted an environmentally friendly heating system to maintain the ideal, constant temperature for furniture storage. re:heat, North East based biomass energy specialists and Heating engineer Gary Oliver, from Darlington, worked together to design and install a 350kW woodchip boiler, creating one of the most sophisticated furniture storage and handling facilities in the country.”

Ben Tansey of re:heat said “Working with Barkers and with Gary was fantastic. We were delighted to get the opportunity to team up with this iconic local firm. The new boiler is working perfectly and it’s great to hear that the distribution centre team are pleased with it too.”

Gary Oliver, Managing Director of G A Oliver Ltd, agreed saying“Barkers were a pleasure to work with and the project went extremely well.”

Find out more about what Barkers has to offer by visiting the website: www.barkers.co.uk. Gary Oliver and his team can be reached online at www.gaoliver.co.uk.

Neil Harrison and Ben Tansey founded re:heat in 2011 to assist businesses of all sizes with converting to sustainable, low carbon wood fuel heating systems

Modern heating developments take centre stage at National Trust property

Wallington Hall re-sized

The public is invited to find out more about the National Trust’s progress in substantially reducing carbon emissions at its properties.

The historic mansion house and gardens of Wallington Hall estate in Northumberland have seen some dramatic changes behind the scenes over the past few months. The Wallington biomass district heating scheme involves introducing the very latest in green technology to the 17th century premises, a development which supports the National Trust’s environmental commitments.

The Trust aims to substantially reduce carbon emissions at its properties by switching to more renewable energy sources and to deliver 50 per cent of its energy from renewables by 2020.

On Thursday 6 July, the Wallington estate will hold an open day to allow the public to see more of this complex and ambitious project. The cutting-edge scheme has seen the installation of two 130kw wood pellet fired biomass boilers, which now provide heat and hot water to the main hall, estate cottages, offices, gift shop and café.

The open day coincides with other events to mark Community Energy Fortnight (24 June – 9 July) and the Climate Coalition’s Week of Action (1 – 9 July), under what is being called the ‘Powering Together’ initiative. The aim is to highlight and explore how the community energy sector is working together to ensure energy is efficiently used, generated renewably and any benefits produced shared locally.

The work at Wallington has been carried out by North East-based biomass specialist, re:heat which was appointed by the National Trust in December 2016 to remove the estate’s inefficient oil fired boilers and install the renewable fueled heating and hot water system. It is not the first time that re:heat has worked with the National Trust, having installed two wood pellet fired biomass boilers at Nunnington Hall, near York, in summer 2016.

Ben Tansey, re:heat director, said:

“We were delighted to be working with the National Trust again and this has been an exciting project to be involved with. Wallington is a sensitive site, steeped in history, so there were some unique challenges to overcome to provide the best possible heating solution without adversely impacting on the existing building and grounds.

“We’re pleased with what we have been able to accomplish here and the benefits that the new system will provide the National Trust long term.”

National Trust project manager, Adrian Fox, said:

“In addition to reducing impact on the environment by removing the oil powered heating systems, switching to biomass affords us a level of security in no longer responding to fluctuating oil prices and the money saved can be used in the continued conservation of the property.”

If you are interested in the open day and would like to find out more, please call re:heat on 01665 665 040 or email hello@reheat.uk.com.

 

Biomass Engineer Vacancy

A new opportunity has arisen with re:heat.  Ideally based in Northumberland, but working across the UK, we are looking for a Biomass Engineer with 3 or more years previous experience and an electrical bias.  The ideal candidate will be able to contribute enthusiastically to the wide variety of opportunities that re:heat are actively working on – from boiler installations through to consultancy, and providing first class support to our many customers across the north of England and Scotland.

The successful candidate would be primarily based at our office in Alnwick, but be willing and able to travel as required by the role.  We would also consider suitable candidates who may not be based in, or be willing to relocate to Northumberland.

The duties of the Biomass Engineer will include :

  • Installation and commissioning of biomass boilers throughout the UK.
  • Providing phone support to customers and other engineers working on fault finding.
  • Working on domestic, commercial and industrial biomass boilers.
  • Working independently for small commercial and domestic jobs.
  • Working as part of a team to assist in the installation of large commercial and industrial projects.
  • Carrying out programmes of remedial work on third party installations.
  • Servicing and maintaining customers’ biomass boilers.

For the role of Biomass Engineer, the candidate is expected to :

  • Ideally, have prior experience of installation and commissioning of biomass boilers.
  • Be electrically biased, and be able to fault find electrical and control systems.
  • Be experienced on biomass boiler controls and their integration with heating control systems.
  • Be prepared to work long hours when necessary, as well as travel throughout the UK.

Candidates with experience of working on ETA, Fröling and Herz equipment would be at a particular advantage, but we work with a wide range of systems from other manufacturers, and full  training would be provided.

If you would be interested in joining a small, friendly company with an excellent reputation, and growing within the biomass industry, please contact Ben Tansey (ben@reheat.uk.com) for an informal and confidential discussion.

We offer a competitive salary and contributory pension scheme, training with leading manufacturers and a varied and stimulating work environment.