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Biomass fuelled power plants and what all the fuss is about

At the present moment in time, we are hugely reliant on fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas. However, as you’re no doubt already aware, there are various problems associated with these harmful and finite resources.


Fossil fuels are non-renewable forms of energy and will eventually run out. What’s more, they release carbon dioxide when they burn, which adds to the greenhouse effect and increases global warming. Coal and oil also release sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to acid rain and breathing problems for living creatures.


The difficulties associated with sourcing and distributing fossil fuel also has an effect on the price of utility bills and petrol prices, which are increasing all the time. But even though around three-quarters of the UK’s electricity is produced by burning natural gas and coal, there is an alternative.


What is Biomass?


Developed from organic materials, Biomass is a renewable and sustainable source of energy that can be used as a fuel to create electricity or other forms of power. The biological material derived from living or recently living organisms that make up biomass include scrap lumber, forest debris, certain crops, manure and types of waste residues.


If managed successfully on a sustainable basis, biomass can be harvested as a constantly replenished crop and remain a renewable source of fuel. Biomass takes carbon out of the atmosphere while growing, but returns it during the burning process.


What’s more, waste should always exist from construction projects, demolition activities and properly managed forests with residual biological matter.


Why use biomass?


In addition to producing a fraction of the carbon emissions of fossil fuels, biomass also has a range of additional benefits according to the


  • Biomass can be sourced locally on an indefinite basis. Therefore, there are little to no problems associated with lack of supply.
  • The sourcing of biomass can create local and national business opportunities while supporting small rural economies.
  • Local networks mean that the financial and environmental cost of transport can be minimised.
  • The adoption of biomass provides an economic inventive to manage woodlands more effectively, which is turn enhances biodiversity.
  • The burning of biomass produces lower levels of atmospheric pollutants such as sulphur dioxide.
  • If biomass residues, co-products and waste aren’t used for energy, they will rot and generate carbon dioxide and methane.


Producing power with biomass


Although biomass boilers are becoming more widespread in residential homes as an alternative to gas burning central heating systems, this renewable source of energy can also be utilised by power stations too. Carbon neutral electricity generated from renewable organic waste is a distinct possibility and could become the sustainable power plant of choice by national governments all of the world.


Unlike wind and most solar technologies, which only produce power when the weather conditions are right, biomass can generate electricity at any time because it relies on combustion. As of March 2013, the UK’s operational biomass stations were producing around 1,000MW of energy. However, new projects and proposed plans could increase this figure to around 6,000MW.


In order to make electricity, biomass is burnt directly in boilers to produce steam, which turns a turbine and generator. In some advanced facilities, it can also be converted to gaseous or liquid fuels through gasification or pyrolysis. That way, the derived fuels can be used to power more efficient and productive gas turbine generators.


Our hose fittings and pipe fittings are used in biomass fuelled power plants, but have many other uses in the food, beverage and pharmaceutical industries too.


Biomass power plant challenges


Despite the fact that the process of burning biomass is similar to fossil fuels, the equipment required is quite different. A lot will depend on the type of biomass fuel used, but the facility will need ample inside or outside storage. For example, a 100MW plant could burn an estimated 400,000 tonnes of wood pellets annually. A quarter of this supply would require an 180ft wide by 1,200ft long warehouse, which is quite substantial. Additional equipment such as new conveyors, stackers and boilers would also need to be upgraded, modified, replaced or installed.


What’s more, it can be quite an expensive method of generating electricity and power plants need to be built near a plentiful supply of biomass fuel to realise the environmental benefits. Otherwise, multiple trucks or trains, which are only capable of carrying a limited amount of biomass fuel on each journey, would constantly be travelling to and from the plant.


As long as the cycle of growing, processing and burning biomass is sustainable, there will be little to no net gain in atmospheric carbon dioxide. Even so, biomass plants will still release CO2 into the environment, which calls for close attention to managed production and natural processes. Even though other air emissions such as sulphur dioxide and mono-nitrogen oxides are generally low, a lot will depend on the fuel, technology and combustion facilities. Air quality concerns have also been raised over particulates, but these can be managed through conventional technologies and no biomass facilities have installed advanced emissions controls relating to this.


Examples of biomass power plants


Ironbridge, United Kingdom - 740MW


The world’s biggest biomass plant was previously a coal-fired power station with an installed capacity of 1,000MW. But today, Ironbridge can produce 740MW through biomass materials. Unfortunately, the facility will close in 2015 as part of the European Union's Large Combustion Plant Directive (LCPD). Owners E.ON are generating power from wood pellets up until the plant closes its doors.


Alholmens Kraft, Finland - 265MW


This particular plant is conveniently located near a pulp, paper and timber manufacturer, which reduces its environmental footprint considerably. Operational since 2002, Alholmens Kraft supplies 100MW of heat to its paper mill and 600MW of heating for the inhabitants of nearby Jakobstad.


Polaniec, Poland - 205MW


Commencing commercial operations in November 2012, Polaniec is a fully biomass fuelled plant, using tree-farming and agricultural by-products as its source of energy. It also features the world’s biggest and most advanced biomass circulating fluidised bed (CFB) boiler. Every year, Polaniec generates enough electricity for 600,000 households, but still manages to offset 1.2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions.


Seeing as there are several successful and efficient biomass power stations currently in operation, it seems like only a matter of time before more governments and private enterprises start developing their own facilities, especially when you consider the numerous boons and benefits they afford.


Here at Custom Fittings, we hope our range of tailor-made and durable products, such as stainless steel NPT fittings, can fulfil the requirements of future power plants for years to come.

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