Biomass and Wood Fuel Supply FAQs

Q. What is biomass?

A. The term ‘biomass’ is shorthand for ‘biological mass’. It is fuel material derived from any biological (plant or animal) source. Woodfuel, is just one type of biomass from a list of many.

Q. What is woodfuel?

A. Woodfuel is wood that is burned to generate heat or electricity. It is usually in the form of logs, chips or pellets. Woodfuel has traditionally been used in the form of logs burned in open fireplaces, log-burning stoves or furnaces. However, wood chips and pellets which can be burned in sophisticated, modern stoves and boilers - some of which have thermostatic controls and automated ignition and loading systems - are becomingly popular for their convenience and ease of handling.

Q. What are the benefits of using  woodfuel?

a) It is Competitively Priced: Woodfuel can compete on fuel price with the fossil fuel alternatives, although installation costs of biomass fuel systems will be higher. (This can be recouped through the RHI scheme)  When first looking into your project you should seek advice on the comparative economics of your woodfuel proposal, because they can vary with the different types of woodfuel and the type of fossil fuel they are being compared with, and your location. See the Forestry Commission's website for the contact details of woodfuel advisory services.

b) It is Carbon-Lean: Woodfuel has many  benefits, in the 21st Century, the most significant:  is its potential role in helping to prevent climate change due to the lower net emissions of greenhouse gases than fossil fuels.

Woodfuel produced in sustainably managed forests is ‘replaced’ by the next crop of growing trees, this crop reabsorbs the same amount of carbon being emitted by the crop being burned. The only net emissions are those caused by the harvesting, transport and processing of woodfuel. There is no such balanced cycle for carbon relating to  fossil fuels except, perhaps, one measured in millions of years. Fossil Fuel  emissions are effectively all one-way traffic from the Earth's crust to the atmosphere.

c) It is renewable Energy: Unlike fossil fuel reserves, sustainably managed woodland can produce an endlessly renewable source of energy. In contrast, once fossil fuels have been used, they are gone for millions of years.

d) Good for the Woodland Environment: Sustainable management of woodlands for woodfuel is good for wildlife, biodiversity and woodland health and vigour. The thinning, harvesting and coppicing of trees for woodfuel opens up the woodland floor to the sunlight, this encourages a greater range of plants, animals and insects to flourish than if the woodland were left to become rank, dark and overgrown - a state that foresters call "over-mature" or "under-managed".

e) It Encourages Woodland Conservation: Foresters have a saying: "the woodland that pays is the woodland that stays". Meaning the prospect of earning an income from their woodland can give owners an incentive to manage their woods sustainably, keep them in good condition, and protect them from dying of neglect. Managing woodland, preserves it for the future generations to use and enjoy.

f) It is Good for Business and Jobs: Woodfuel can generate new business and job opportunities, from harvesting the trees to transporting them, often in economically fragile rural areas. I can offer land owners with expensive running costs an  extra source of income from their trees.

g) It is Good for Fuel Security: Woodfuel reduces our dependence on unsustainable and declining fossil fuel resources, using locally produced woodfuel can help shield you from some of the vagaries and fluctuations of the international oil, gas and coal markets.

h) It Can Relieve Fuel Poverty: Woodfuel can help to combat fuel poverty by providing an alternative source of energy in areas that are off the gas grid, often rural areas where the only alternative is expensive oil..

i) It is Convenient and Simple to Use: Modern developments in  wood-burning boilers and stoves can compete on ease of use, cleanliness, efficiency, convenience and maintenance with the fossil-fuelled alternatives, especially if they burn chips or pellets.

Q. How does woodfuel compare on quality and efficiency to oil, coal and gas?

A. There are so many variables that must be taken into account to answer this question correctly. Why not contact us for a specific answer to your project? The Biomass Energy Centre can also give you more information. Alternatively, you can see a comparison between the main fossil and biomass fuels below;

Fuel kg/m3 g CO2/kWh kWh/ Kg
Wood Chips 250 7 3.5
Logs 350 7 4.1
Wood Pellets 650 15 4.8
Coal n/a 484 8.6
LPG n/a 323 6.6
Heating Oil n/a 350 10
Electricity n/a 530 n/a
Source: Biomass Energy Centre

Q. If woodfuel is such a great idea, why are we not using more of it already?

A. For thousands of year Wood was  British people’s primary heating and cooking fuel. However, woodfuel fell into short supply as the population grew  and most of Britain's forests and woodland were removed with no thought to replacing what was being used. Coal was plentiful and took over as the primary fuel, later to be joined - and partially supplanted - by natural gas. Gas is popular because it is clean to handle and transport, clean burning, and very convenient, requiring little or none of the daily attention usually associated with solid fuels.

Since the use of coal and natural gas our wood stock has been growing and we are now in a position where we are growing a surplus to need. Our forest area is increasing again, and modern technology is making woodfuel competitive with oil and LPG on cleanliness and convenience.

Q. But isn't cutting down trees bad for the environment?

A. Not necessarily: it depends how it's done. When tree felling and coppicing are carried out as part of  a sustainable forest management plan it mimics the events that would happen in a pristine natural forest. In a natural environment, trees are frequently brought down or removed, creating openings, by events such as landslips, fires, floods, wind storms, lightning strikes, insect attacks, diseases, death from old age, and by being eaten, trampled or pushed over by animals.

Maintaining a woodland or forest allows sunlight to reach the forest floor, which enables a wider range of plants, insects and animals to live in the woodland than would be able to if it were left to become dense, dark and rank. Woodlands without this maintenance are described as "over-mature" or "under-managed". Sustainably managed woodland increases the "biodiversity" (biological diversity, or the variety of living things) boosting the woodland's overall health and vigour.

In a sustainably managed forest new trees will also be planted to match the amount felled. This means that tree felling does not always have a ‘deforestation’ effect or result in permanent forest removal.

Q. So how do I know whether my woodfuel has been produced in a responsibly managed forest?

A. We are working on ways to demonstrate and assure customers of the sustainability and environmental credentials of woodfuel. There are suggestions that existing independent forest certification standards,or new rules specifically introduced for biomass, could be used. However, there are concerns that the costs and other implications of these solutions might discourage some owners of small woodlands from bringing them into sustainable management for woodfuel production.

So we're working with the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) to engage fully with the European Union in its discussions on sustainability criteria to come up with solutions that reflect the range of situations in the UK.

Meanwhile, though, you can be assured that most British forest managers are environmentally responsible people who comply with the Government's world-leading UK Forestry Standard (UKFS). The UKFS sets some of the strictest forestry standards in the world. These include the minimum levels of sustainability and environmental and wildlife protection that woodland management must achieve to comply with legal requirements and qualify for government grants and Forestry Commission felling licences and forest plan approvals. This means that you can use British-grown woodfuel confident that it has been grown in sustainable, responsibly managed forests.

In addition to complying with the UKFS, many British woodland owners also have their woodland management "certified" against the independent UK Woodland Assurance Standard (UKWAS). This means they can display the logo of the independent, international Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification schemes (PEFC) on their products as an assurance to customers that the product comes from well managed forests.

You say that each new crop of woodfuel reabsorbs the carbon that's emitted by the previous crop being burned, in a balanced cycle. However, it takes years for a crop to grow, but perhaps only months for it to be burned. How is that a balanced cycle? Surely that means more carbon is being emitted than is being absorbed?

Think of it another way, in a whole-woodland context. Imagine a 200-hectare woodland being sustainably managed to produce woodfuel on a 20-year rotation: that means we harvest andburn 10 hectares every year, and we replant 10 hectares every year. So every year, while 10 hectare's worth of burning woodfuel is emitting carbon, there are 190 hectares of growing trees absorbing carbon. In other words, there are always many more trees reabsorbing the carbon than there are emitting it. That's how the balance is achieved.

Q. Does burning wood cause air pollution?

A. It could, but the use of clean wood from sustainably managed woodlands by small to medium-scale heating systems produces relatively low levels of emissions.

Provided the fuel has been adequately dried to specified standards and is burned in equipment for which it is specified, woodfuel emissions will comply with the air quality standards required.

Before buying wood-burning equipment,  check with the supplier or your local Council's environmental health department that its specifications meet local air-quality requirements. Checking that your supplier is  a reputable supplier who guarantees that the fuel's moisture content complies with the industry standard and your equipment's specification is a must.

We will continue to work with the environmental authorities in each country on measures to ensure that the risk of air pollution from woodfuel is minimised. See information about Smoke Control Areas here 

Q. What about quality assurance? How can I be sure that what I'm buying is up to the job?

A. We're on the case! The industry is already aware that equipment and service failures, and too much variation in the quality of the fuel entering the market, will damage the industry's reputation and slow its development. This will serve nobody's interest. It is essential that woodfuel is supplied at the right specification for the equipment and that it is easily accessible to biofuel consumers

Many suppliers are already operating quality control procedures and in the future we hope to get these standards applied consistently across the supply chain. We are members of a forum of key trade associations to promote a co-ordinated approach to the development of the woodfuel industry, including quality assurance.

Q. Where will the wood come from? Is there enough woodfuel in Britain to go around?

A. Compared to other European countries, Britain is a  lightly forested land. In Britain we cannot hope to grow enough woodfuel to supply everyone. In the UK woodfuel will only ever be  one element in a mix of renewable energy measures. Together these elements will help to meet our targets for reducing carbon emissions.

In the future we hope a lot more British-grown wood is used as fuel to promote  sustainability and environmental quality of our woods and forests, without impinging on wood supplies to other users and customers.

There is still a lot of woody material not currently being used for woodfuel. Forestry Commission England estimates that up to 2 million tonnes a year could be produced from currently "under-managed" woodland  saving 400,000 tonnes of carbon emissions a year.

Its England Woodfuel Strategy that is particularly targeting this resource for market development. Not only will it bring more woodfuel to the market, it will also encourage owners to manage their woodlands for fuel production, benefiting the woodlands .too.

Other potential sources include:  

  • "Lop and Top" Material, or “brash”, left over from forestry operations, for example, the treetops and branches that are stripped off the logs before the logs are taken to the mills;   
  • Sawmill Residues, irregular-shaped off-cuts  that result from the logs being "squared" before being converted into planks. (Indeed, most of this resource is already used). Sawdust is another sawmill residue, which can be compressed into pellets which is already being used as biofuel;   
  • Arboriculture "Arising’s", like the first potential source, but from pruning and felling of  non-forest trees, situated in places like, streets, parks and gardens. It is estimated that 68 per cent of arboriculture arising from built-up areas and along transport corridors in England  currently  goes to landfill; and   
  • Recovered Wood,  wood that has come to the end of its first use in the form of pallets, buildings and furniture. If this was converted into woodfuel rather than  sent to landfill, a Defra study identified that this could present one of the greatest opportunities for carbon savings in waste management.
  • Additionally, the UK, Scottish and Welsh Assembly Governments have policies in place for increasing the area of forest and woodland in each country.

Q. What about places that could be both supplier and user, such as wooded farms and estates? Are you encouraging them to get involved?

A. Yes, very much so. Farms and estates with their own woodlands  can produce woodfuel, for a number of buildings that need heat and hot water, these properties can be among the most carbon-efficient woodfuel users of all, saving up to 80%. The transport emissions generated by same-site use are low, with the economics competing strongly with fossil fuels. Farms or estates producing a  surplus woodfuel and who use existing farm machinery for some of the operations rather than buy new equipment can make additional savings.

Q. If I convert my heating to a wood-fuelled system, can I be confident of getting a reliable supply at a fair price?

A. The supply picture varies in the South West and across Britain - some regions now have relatively well developed woodfuel supply chains, while others are still in the early stages of development. We and our partners in other government departments and agencies are working hard to put in place standards and certification to create market  confidence everywhere.

We are gathering information so that we know what we've got; from that we can work out what is still needed. We aim to gain a comprehensive knowledge  of the actual and potential woodfuel resources available, improved information about current levels of demand and supply, and greater price transparency. We have networks of regional woodfuel advisers across England and Scotland, and a team supporting woodfuel development in Wales, working to gather and provide local information and advice. They are also helping to develop effective supply chains between local "clusters" of suppliers and customers together to stimulate the market. Continually, this support will give both sides of the supply chain the confidence to invest.

The Forestry Commission supplies some woodfuel from its own forests, but we're constrained in the amount we can supply by our existing long-term contracts

However, our key thrust across the South West and Britain is to help and encourage private woodland owners, who have the largest potential resource, to bring their wood to the market. For further information on the relative costs of woodfuel take a look at our Commercial or Domestic RHI Calculators.

Q. If I want to become a woodfuel supplier, would I find a reliable market for my product?

A. We are working to help more suppliers and more customers enter the market giving each side of the supply chain the confidence to take the plunge.

We use our own and other government departments' grant schemes to try to encourage the development of the supply chain to the industry together with our own network of advisors. This is all playing an important role in bringing together local clusters of suppliers and customers.

Q. Are there any grants available to help me get involved?

A. Yes, the Forestry Commission and other government departments in all three countries have a range of grant schemes to help new suppliers and users with the cost of equipment, to help woodland owners get started. These schemes are not specifically for  woodfuel, but can be applied to it. Contact one of the information sources listed below for specific advice on the grants available in your country.

Q. Can I make a decent profit from supplying woodfuel?

A. Many suppliers are already achieving a good return on their investment, although the answer, as with any business depends on a number of factors, including how quickly you can turn over enough volume to pay for any up-front investment. It’s a significant help if you already have some of the equipment and facilities that will allow you to diversify into woodfuel. As discussed before, farm and estate owners are likely to already have machinery that can be used for woodfuel operations. The Renewable Heat Incentive, which became available in 2011, has provided a significant boost to the profitability of woodfuel production and supply by increasing demand.

Q. What research and development work are you doing to support the woodfuel industry?

A. The Forestry Commission's has a research arm with a full programme of projects that are constantly producing new data. This  feeds into our programme to support the woodfuel industry’s development. For more information click here.

Q. What's government policy on woodfuel?

A. The UK, Scottish and Welsh Assembly Governments all recognise and support the use of renewable forms of biomass, including woodfuel, as a mix of renewable energy to be used to achieve  the UK Government's target, and their own targets, for reducing carbon emissions. The UK targets are 20% below 1990 levels by 2010, and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.

Some of the available support measures, such as grants, are provided by the UK Government in all four countries of the UK. There are support measures  specifically provided by each of the country governments to support the industry in their country.

The Renewable Heat Incentive is the UK government’s scheme. The commercial phase of this scheme was launched in 2011 with the domestic phase launched in April 2014. This scheme supports the additional costs of installing biomass boilers.

FAQ's From the Forestry Commission.