Biomass boilers required by planners are mothballed in favour of cheaper gas alternatives
Landlords shun green power
Housing associations have been switching off environmentally friendly heating systems in favour of traditional power sources.
A number of London landlords have admitted they have found biomass boilers difficult to use in an urban setting because of the costs and carbon footprint of importing fuel. They have also reported some operational difficulties. The news came as the government launched a £19 billion follow-up to the decent homes programme to improve the sustainability of UK housing stock.
Housing associations in London embraced biomass heating because the London Plan requires new developments to use onsite renewable energy to cut carbon emissions.
A source at one large housing association confirmed it had switched off a biomass boiler on one of its developments because of maintenance problems, saying: ‘A lot of housing associations are just installing them to meet the target and then secretly running gas boilers instead.’
Although biomass is one of the more cost-effective renewable energy sources, it can be difficult to manage. Sources said the boilers need more maintenance than standard gas units, and there are very few reliable sources of the wood pellet fuel needed to run them in the UK. London developments find getting fuel particularly difficult, and often have to buy the pellets from other European countries and even Canada.
Paul Davies, group carbon manager for Wates Living Space, said he knew of three or four developments in which biomass boilers had been put in and later taken out, or where an alternative fuel source was being used, including the back-up boiler.
Catalyst Housing Group has installed biomass boilers on two of its sites, but says it plans to use gas boilers if the cost of wood pellets rises too high. Planning permission was granted on the proviso the developments would contain both types of boiler.
A source close to Notting Hill Housing alleged the association faced cost and fuel problems with a biomass boiler at its 12-home St Matthews scheme in Lewisham. A spokesperson for Notting Hill denied any problems. ‘Overall, the performance of the boiler has been satisfactory,’ she said.
Terry Keech, partner at construction consultancy Calfordseaden, said some developers were switching off biomass boilers in favour of gas back-up boilers, which are installed to provide extra capacity when biomass fuel is unavailable. He said housing associations were worried about getting deliveries of the wood chips and the cost of maintaining and cleaning the boilers.
The Greater London Authority was unable to comment.