Biomass - renewable fuel benefits

Biomass has enabled many to save on heating bills with help from the Renewable Heat Incentive. With the scheme under review, we ask experts what those thinking of following suit should consider while Jez Abbott reports on growers' experiences.

Pentland Biomass: launched by Pentland Plants owner David Spray to source wood for his company as well as other businesses taking a similar leap of faith into biomass - image: Pentland Biomass
Pentland Biomass: launched by Pentland Plants owner David Spray to source wood for his company as well as other businesses taking a similar leap of faith into biomass - image: Pentland Biomass


The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) for non-domestic use was introduced four years ago to reduce the nation's dependence on fossil fuels by providing financial incentives for users to switch to renewable heating technologies such as biomass, heat pumps and solar thermal.

Administered by Ofgem, RHI payments are index-linked and guaranteed for 20 years. Little wonder then that there has been a rush to renewable heating technologies since the introduction of the RHI - and none more so than biomass.

This technology now produces more than 2,200MW of renewable heat, accounting for a staggering 94.5 per cent of the overall non-domestic renewable heat output. Horticultural and agricultural sectors stand at the forefront, accounting for nearly 33 per cent of the total uptake so far.

In fact, the scheme has been a victim of its own success, forcing Ofgem to use its quarterly reviews to reduce rates for new installations when uptake for a technology has far exceeded expectation. This has been particularly noticeable for small commercial biomass (<200kW).

This has seen so-called "tier 1" payments (the first 1,314 operating hours) reduced from 8.94p/kWh initially to 4.18p/kWh at present. There is little doubt the tariff reduction of approximately 50 per cent has affected the recent uptake of small commercial biomass.

But heavy users of heat can still benefit, though they will need to trim their project budget and choose their biomass fuel carefully. Meanwhile, the early adopters benefiting from the higher initial rates must be very glad that they acted early on.

Uptake of medium (200-1,000kW) and large (>1,000kW) biomass has been more in line with Ofgem's expectations, so these have largely escaped tariff reduction so far and will continue to be attractive in appropriate cases, at least for the time being, subject to the detail still to emerge following the chancellor's autumn statement announcing a reform of the RHI.

Reform being considered

Last month the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) stated that Ofgem will continue to run the RHI under the current rules during the budget year 2016-17 while reform of the scheme is considered. This gives certainty for projects that are planning to complete after April 2016, although be mindful that tarrifs will continue to be reviewed by DECC each quarter and Governments can also change their mind.

But Ofgem has already shown it will reduce rates when the financial allocation for a particular technology is exceeded, so for anyone considering a switch to biomass it would be wise to act sooner rather than later because the tariff is fixed at the rate in force at the time when the installation is approved and it is index-linked for the following 20 years.

What then are the issues for those thinking about biomass? Choosing the right fuel is by far the most important factor because this affects every other practical and economic aspect of the switch to biomass. There are many fuel choices:

  • - Straw bales.
  • - Wood pellets.
  • - Virgin wood - round wood or woodchips.
  • - Waste wood.
  • - Miscanthus and other energy crops.
  • - Poultry litter.
  • - Oversize compost.

Factors such as moisture content, energy content and availability vary significantly between these fuels and have a bearing not only on the economics of the project but also affect the choice of boiler because biomass boilers are generally designed for a particular biomass fuel or fuels.

Renewable heating technologies are closely scrutinised, with a number of regulations affecting biomass fuel. Since October last year, commercial biomass users must meet stringent new regulations covering fuel sustainability. Using wood fuel sourced from a supplier on the Biomass Suppliers List (BSL) is the easiest route to compliance.

For other biomass fuels, the user must demonstrate that the fuel they are using meets the sustainability criteria for total greenhouse gas emissions. RHI payments can be withheld where compliance with the new sustainability code cannot be demonstrated. Burning waste wood requires additional permissions, either from the local authority or the Environment Agency, depending on the size of the installation. Once the necessary permission has been obtained, using grade A waste from a BSL supplier will be the most straightforward route to compliance.

Securing the best returns

RHI payments are guaranteed for 20 years so even though payback of the initial investment can often be attained within the first few years, the best return will be earned by those who utilise the asset for the full term.

So, security of fuel supply is very important and while choosing the lowest equipment prices at the outset might be appealing, the cost of replacing inferior-quality equipment mid term, or high routine maintenance costs, could well result in a lower return overall.

All biomass fuels require storage on site. Where the fuel is already available on site or from a local supplier's stock, it may be possible to keep storage space to a minimum, but it is much more usual to provide weather-protected storage sufficient for at least one week at maximum demand. Biomass fuels are bulky so adequate space is required to facilitate large delivery vehicles and the storage of the delivered fuel. Some form of mechanical handling, such as telehandlers, walking floors or auger systems, will be required for unloading and transferring from the fuel store to the boiler.

Biomass users should also be prepared to spend more time maintaining their system than they would with oil or gas. Regular duties such as de-ashing, tube cleaning and adjusting controls can often require an hour a day of someone's time. Occasional clinker removal and the odd breakdown will take time too. In addition, should a user opt for manual rather than automatic fuel loading, it will be necessary to have someone available for stoking every few hours.

Biomass boilers are not ideally suited to modulating or switching on and off, so every biomass heating system must include adequate heat storage. One of the most common mistakes in the greenhouse heating sector is to provide insufficient heat storage - a commonly accepted heat store size is to allow for at least 100 litres of storage for each kilowatt of boiler capacity (100cu m for a 1MW boiler) and it is essential to install proper insulation, ideally 75mm on transport pipes and 150mm on storage tanks.

Finally, the biomass heating system must be integrated into the existing system. In many cases, the biomass boiler will be one of several heat sources such as a backup boiler, a boiler for CO2 production or a combined heat and power system. In such cases it is vital to seek expert advice at an early stage, not least because RHI applications will be rejected where the applicant cannot show exactly how much heat is being generated by each heat source.

There is no doubt that the RHI has already encouraged many growers to install biomass systems and, despite reductions in some tariffs, biomass can still result in substantially lower heating costs in the right circumstances. But there are many practical and regulatory pitfalls, so it is always advisable to seek expert advice at a very early stage.

About GrowSave

GrowSave is AHDB Horticulture's knowledge transfer programme for energy related issues in the protected edibles and protected ornamentals sectors. Largely delivered by consultants from Farm Energy Centre, who are energy experts in agriculture and horticulture, a programme of events and literature is provided annually. Support is available through attendance at industry events and via the GrowSave website at where growers can find out all about the latest techniques and new ways of thinking about energy savings.

Jon Swain is a senior engineer at Farm Energy Centre



What do I do to get some more funding into my horticulture business to move into biomass? We are being told the banks are getting stricter about lending money yet we also hear the banks lend plenty to small and medium-sized enterprises. Is this a paradox and how could businesses help themselves to additional funding?

Coast to Capital is the local enterprise partnership for West Sussex, Brighton & Hove, Lewes, the Gatwick Diamond and Croydon. The area contributes £44.3bn to gross value added. Our goal is to create job growth through investment.

The food and horticultural industry in our region is made up of more than 460 companies clustered around Chichester, coastal West Sussex and Horsham. In West Sussex there is also high-value horticultural activity, which grows produce worth £500m at retail value.

Much of this activity is in fields and under glass. New technologies underpin the industry's long-term competitiveness as well as having access to funds to help businesses grow. Both often come into play when considering a move into biomass.

We work closely with West Sussex Growers' Association, a specialist horticultural branch of the NFU. So what if I belong to one of these organisations, or am a grower anywhere else, for that matter, and want funding to tap into the potential of biomass?

I have been involved in business support for some time and it nearly always boils down to the quality of business planning. It is not rocket science and relies on the owner of the nursery, farm or garden centre applying some simple and honest content to their business plan.

Preparing for an injection of additional funding - whether a loan, grant, equity or debt financing - a lender or grant authority will demand a decent and thought through business plan that is accurate, truthful and honest. Your future in biomass depends on it.

Start writing your plan

Any assumption will be tested and potentially compared to a peer group or analysis from your sector. To start writing your plan you need to describe your business and explain how it fits into today's marketplace, be it ornamental plants for parks and gardens or tomatoes for supermarkets.

This is the first requirement any prospective funder will want to know. What are your horticulture business's key activities, current sales, profit and margins? Aspects that we all take for granted, but will be key if you want a positive decision on funding for that 800MW biomass boiler.

Are there trends or growth rates in what you are producing under glass that make interesting reading? How knowledgeable are you about the poinsettia sector, for example, and what makes your business special? Because your business is unique, what are the barriers to entry? Who are your main competitors and what is your unique selling point? Are there key markets you must serve to survive in this very competitive world?

Additionally, who do you consider to be key members of your management team, what experience do they bring to the business and have you got a succession plan? This is quite important for a lender to know when thinking of long-term investments. Finance is the key determinant and your horticultural production business must have reliable financial figures to support all the arguments you are making. In my opinion, the essentials are:

  • - Historical financial performance.
  • - Three years' profit and loss, balance sheets, cash flows and ratios.
  • - Any comment on the variances mentioned.
  • - Avoid any elevator analysis - be straight and accurately describe your performance.
  • - What assumptions have you made and why?
  • - What downside scenario is there?
  • - What do you consider a sensitivity and why?

Key for lending is the risk assessment. This gives you as the business owner the chance to prove that you have thought through the plan. I suggest you identify key risks and exposures, qualify any potential impact on the business and outline the key mitigants.

Are there any "what ifs" and are there any corrective actions to be undertaken, either short or long term? Mention them. Finally, you need an analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (known as a SWOT analysis). This is more than desirable, it is essential. Identify no more than four-to-five key areas and ensure each entry is an honest one to which you can respond.

Performance measurement

A business plan should not be a tome. Some of the most successful ones I have seen have been no more than five pages long. Once completed, the business plan can be used to regularly measure the company's performance.

If you have key objectives for your employees, their performance can be measured with a positive impact on the business. A visit from a bank manager can be far more positive if you have a current business plan to hand.

When you have completed this key document, read it through and maybe add a few important photographs to make it more attractive and presentable. Show it to a critical friend to ensure that it is comprehensible and then you are ready. In 12 months' time, or whatever time frame you set yourself, repeat the exercise. It will be worth it, I promise.

About Coast to Capital

Coast to Capital has a number of funding streams that horticultural businesses may be able to tap into such as our small grants programme and business growth grants. Applications will be open again next year so keep checking the website ( and for details.

Ron Crank is chief executive of Coast to Capital



1. Fresh Acres

Looking at the pile of logs, Richard Lovejoy knows how the finance will stack up on the two biomass boilers fed by all that wood in its chipped form. His wholesale and retail business produces bedding and hardy nursery stock, and is just completing the installation of an 800kW woodchip biomass boiler - the second biomass boiler at Fresh Acres Nurseries in West Sussex.

The business, set up by his grandfather in the 1930s, installed a smaller 200kW unit two years ago and together the technology will thump out heat for just under 3.5ha of glass sheltering thousands of plants destined for parks and local authority flower beds.

Total investment in the latest biomass boiler was almost £240,000, with the boiler itself costing nearly half that total. The rectangular orange box, 5m long and weighing 9,900kg, is a Heizomat RHK-AK 850. In another outbuilding the smaller two-year-old yellow ETA biomass boiler wafts out gentle heat.

"It's very reliable," says Lovejoy of the 200kW unit. "We ignore it most of the time and empty the ash box every two weeks. It needs little upkeep and unless the wood is wet it pretty much cleans itself. It is also incredibly quiet - you could put it in your house and nobody would complain," he adds.

The brand new orange Heizomat, however, is a different, bigger beast. The kit, supplied by Nexus Energy, churns through 8,000 tonnes of seasoned and force-dried woodchip a week at full output. Three tonnes of wood is equal in energy output to 1,000 litres of oil, which is what Lovejoy previously used.

He still does. But whereas up to 70 per cent of heating came from oil before the new boiler arrived, when both biomasses are blasting at full capacity 90 per cent of energy will come from burning woodchip. The returns, he insists, are good thanks in large part to the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI).

The RHI, a Government scheme to encourage uptake of renewable heat technologies, pays the likes of Fresh Acres for producing green energy. The figures soon add up, says Lovejoy, who took quotes on three boilers before teeing up a 20-year contract for the Heizomat.

RHI payments in the first year will total £57,578. In the tenth year they will be £75,126 and in the final, 20th year, will be £100,964. Total RHI payments over the two decades will be nearly £1.55m and Lovejoy reckons the boiler will pay for itself in three-and-a-half years.

While the RHI is currently under review by DECC, old hands such as Lovejoy's lucky team are locked into a lucrative 20-year contract. Financing the deal proved reassuringly stress-free while preparatory site work threw up no nasty surprises, he says.

"Finance wasn't too difficult to arrange," he recalls. "We ended up going with our bank but there are other options and the deals are pretty cheap - about one per cent over the base rate. We also got a quote from business financier Lombard. Our bank offered a similar but better deal."

Site work involved laying a concrete base to take the 118-tonne thermal store - "the bigger the thermal store the better for heating glasshouses" - for the new boiler and ripping up roads to lay pipework, a job that took the welders a week.

Fresh Acres took advice from a civil engineer but did the work itself, including setting aside a 250cu m storage area for the woodchip and rotary feeder, which is a cheaper option than a top-loader system for feeding the woodchip into the biomass system.

"Storage is an important consideration and you need to calculate how much you'll need over time frames such as Christmas and New Year. Suppliers are unlikely to deliver woodchip over the festive period so you need to account for that in sizing your biomass store."

Lovejoy concludes: "If I were to go through the whole process again I wouldn't do it much differently, except factor in a bit more time. Most things took longer to arrive than anticipated, more like 14-16 weeks rather than the 12-week delivery times we were quoted.

"We have ended up with a fuel cheaper than oil, the price of which continually fluctuates. Yet we receive around £60,000 a year from the RHI and once the biomass system has paid for itself in three-and-a-half years we've got a further 16-and-a-half years to consolidate the gains. It's a bit of a no-brainer."

Payback: rough guide

  • Investment £238,220
  • Payback period Four years
  • Total gain over 20 years (RHI + fuel cost savings) £1.97m.


2. Pentland Plants

Almost a year ago, Pentland Plants owner David Spray said without a trace of doubt that biomass was crucial to success. Spray had just taken delivery of a new 999kW biomass boiler to add to his firm's existing 2,000kW boiler and he is just about to add another 999kW model to his business in a fairly remote part of Scotland.

"You have to have a biomass boiler to have any success," he explains. "With more biomass being used, fewer poinsettia will come from Holland. There are no losses on poinsettia like there used to be with oil and gas heating and there will be more grown in the UK in the next few years."

For more than 40 years Pentland Plants has been growing and running a garden centre at Loanhead just south of Edinburgh. The family-run business grows its own bedding and basket plants and produces more than 50 million in hi-tech, climate-controlled glasshouses.

"David is a biomass guru," insists his colleague and director of sister company Pentland Biomass Shiona Macmillan. He launched the biomass business around nine years ago because the cost of oil was going through the roof and "pricing us out of the market", she explains.

That first biomass boiler, a 2,000kW £260,000 Reka model that burned 2,500 tonnes of woodchip each year, was installed to try and trim annual heating costs that were totalling some £300,000. It made a six-figure difference in terms of savings when installed in December 2006, says Macmillan.

It will shortly be replaced with a 999kW Herz model, which will run alongside an existing Herz boiler. This time around Pentland has accounted for possible delays. Planning consent for the original fuel store and boiler house went well, but issues over flue height slowed the process.

Macmillan says: "That first boiler made a massive change but there was not enough fuel. There was nothing of this scale in Scotland. So David made a leap of faith and launched Pentland Biomass to source wood for his company and other businesses taking a similar leap of faith into biomass."

Before long Pentland Biomass was installing systems as well as supplying wood to clients such as Edinburgh and Midlothian Councils as well as Dunbar Garden Centre. The company has now installed more than 250 biomass boilers - great news for fuel supplies, now a secondary strand to installation.

Pentland Biomass's seven-figure turnover is a third of total group business, but companies switching to biomass can no longer expect to make "a quick buck" because subsidies through the Renewable Heat Incentive are no longer quite so generous. It has now become "a slower process", says Macmillan.

By this, she reckons payback periods have gone from three-to-four years to eight or nine. But she insists that this should not deter growers from taking the biomass route. Adopting the technology "is still well worth it as the tariffs remain fairly attractive".

Macmillan adds: "In the end a boiler is a boiler that just heats stuff - it doesn't do it with any more beauty or colour depending on the type. But biomass has made us much more competitive, given us a bit more control and provided local employment in terms of management and boiler maintenance.

"And it has also helped cash flow. Our biomass business is an entirely separate arm from our horticulture work and most of the cash flow from the latter is in the summer months. Most of the biomass business, meanwhile, is during the winter months, which has smoothed out our cash flow.

"This was not a planned outcome when we started but from our perspective it is a very good, and very welcome, balance."

Key figures

Fuel consumption, costs and savings for the 2,000kW Reka biomass boiler:

  • Weekly wood fuel use 270 tonnes at peak, 45 tonnes in summer
  • Annual wood fuel use 2,500 tonnes
  • Annual energy consumption 8,000kWh
  • Annual CO2 savings 2,500 tonnes
  • Wood fuel cost £125,000
  • Annual fuel cost saving £256,000

Lessons learned

  • - Underground fuel storage would allow more space for storing round wood on site.
  • - Dealing with the same boiler representative throughout installation can smooth process.
  • - Large area required to produce and store big volumes of woodchip.
  • - Large volumes of woodchip help for breaks in production and ensure continuous operation.
  • - Plan for and allow appropriate time to win planning approval for your development, if required.

Why biomass?

A council feasibility study into alternative energy sources concluded that a biomass boiler offered the best solution because it would:

  • - Burn existing green waste produced by parks department.
  • - Reduce gas consumption and therefore make financial savings.
  • - Reduce expenditure on transfer and disposal of green waste.
  • - Increase operational capability and capacity of the nursery.
  • - Reduce council's carbon footprint in line with environmental strategy.

3. Bournemouth Council

The parks team at Bournemouth Borough Council was in a quandary. Its five gas-fired boilers at King’s Park Nursery were coming to the end of their working life at the site, which produces beautiful plants and flowers for the town’s parks and civic areas.

The cost of running the boilers was far from beautiful — annual energy bills were £9,000 while carbon dioxide emissions totalled 63 tonnes. The local authority carried out a feasibility on alternatives and biomass emerged as a good way of heating glass and tunnels while saving on money and emissions.

For starters, much of the fuel was free and sourced from wood chippings from the arboriculture team. Wood pellets worked out at 5p per kilowatt hour against oil that was costing 11p per kWh.

Bournemouth bought a 300kW Schmid biomass boiler from Imperative Energy. Packaged Plant Solutions built the plant room with integrated fuel store, pumps, valves and pipework. The plant room’s rear wall was inclined by 10° to stand against a similarly angled bank to minimise footprint and ease access for lorries delivering fuel.

The boiler with 7m flue cost around £55,500 and was sited on empty land around 28m from the nursery. The heating system including pipes and controls cost £36,800 while feasibility, structural work and commissioning added another £58,700.

The overall bill came to £151,000 for a system requiring a 32-amp three-phase electrical supply. The biomass boiler was installed in early 2011, with capacity from the gas-fired boilers retained as backup and to kick in during bitingly cold days.

Woodchip was one of the biggest concerns. Quality, insists a council spokesman, was "critical". It had to have less than 30 per cent moisture and produce little ash. A five-tonne bunker feeds between 15kg and 132kg of woodchip per hour.

"All of the benefits identified at the feasibility stage have been realised over the past four-to-five years," says the spokesman. "Further glasshouse space in the nursery was incorporated into the system this year to enhance these benefits.

"Each element in the whole process is working well including waste timber collection, timber processing, boiler operation and distribution of heat around the nursery. In times of extreme cold the existing gas boilers are programmed to augment heat from the biomass boiler. One of the aims for the medium-term future is to identify and establish a new site in Bournemouth for storing and processing the timber."

Why biomass?

A council feasibility study into alternative energy sources concluded that a biomass boiler offered the best solution because it would:
• Burn existing green waste produced by parks department.
• Reduce gas consumption and therefore make financial savings.
• Reduce expenditure on transfer and disposal of green waste.
• Increase operational capability and capacity of the nursery.
• Reduce council’s carbon footprint in line with environmental strategy.

4. Hill Brothers Nursery

Hill Brothers Nursery produces more than two million plants including betulia, hydrangea, lavender, poinsettia, orchids and herbs for Homebase, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury's.

In March 2015 the company fired up a 995kW Justsen Argusflex woodchip biomass boiler to replace a coal-fired boiler system to heat around 1ha of glass. Heating is controlled by an integrated Priva system and the boiler is automatically fed via an overhead Flier Systems fuel-grab crane to pick up woodchips from a bulk storage area packed with 10 tonnes of fuel.

Owner Peter Hill chose the Justsen for its robust industrial design. Traditionally used for town district heating systems, it has a large grate and heat exchanger area and is designed to burn dry or wet fuels with up to 35 per cent moisture.

He paid £400,000 for the boiler, supplied and installed by Core Biomass, and £120,000 for a storage area. This is a sizeable investment for the business in Chichester, West Sussex, and Hill makes no bones about why he spent big.

"We hope the boiler will pay for itself in five years, but it's early days, and the only reason people go for biomass is the Renewable Heat Incentive," he says. "Unless you live in the middle of nowhere, I can't see many people taking this route. There needs to be a strong incentive in the form of heavy subsidies.

"That said, our customers are quite happy to know we are making these kind of moves. Though they often challenge us to try and adopt environment-friendly approaches, none has put us under any pressure. But I'm sure they are happier we have taken this route."

If only like-minded local growers pooled their thinking, and resources, biomass could be even more beneficial, Hill suggests. "Within a one-mile radius of here there are 40 acres of heated glass and I would have thought there was plenty of incentive to bring us all together to buy a big 10MW biomass boiler rather than us all putting in our own smaller systems."

5. Trelawney Garden Centre

Sweeping through the front entrance to Trelawney Garden Centre in Wadebridge, Cornwall, visitors peering through the large display window next to the reception desk can see the new biomass boiler. They cannot miss it, which is what director David Danning intended.

He installed the biomass boiler a year ago. The 200kW model, supplied by ETA and installed by CleanEarth, is the latest eco initiative for a business that harvests rainwater, recycles kitchen cooking oil and composts vegetable waste from that same kitchen.

Some 500 solar roof panels power a third of the garden centre, with the slack now taken up by the boiler. Biomass, says Danning, is cheaper than the gas from bulk tanks he previously used, while Renewable Heat Incentive tariffs, guaranteed for 20 years, ensure a three-and-a-half-year payback.

He invested £100,000 in the boiler and £40,000 to plumb in new pipes - the old gas system used radiant heaters with no pipework. Paperwork for regulator Ofgem took time but as soon as energy-efficiency certification came through he was ready to start claiming those tantalising tariffs.

"The finance is good, while the output is phenomenal," says Danning.

"I've never had such a constant, comfortable heat across the 3,000sq m garden centre, even in the depth of winter. The boiler heats water that is pumped around the retail area and restaurant.

"I installed the boiler in a prominent place, through a large window by the receptionist's desk, and tell everyone about environment friendliness in terms of what it does and what it can save. Even the woodchip is supplied locally to cut down on carbon miles, and all of this is great marketing."

Woodchip takes up more storage space than wood pellets, but the latter are supplied by fewer people and from further afield, which clocks up road mileage. In winter the boiler needs one large lorryload of fuel a month but in summer Danning can get away with one truckload every three months.

"We are looking at burning miscanthus grass, grown just four miles away. It is very similar to bamboo and can be burnt to heat the garden centre. It may have maintenance and cleaning issues but it all fits into the wider picture. We have a very strict environmental policy and always do as much as we can to keep things green," he says of the Trelawney centre, recently taken over by Blue Diamond.

"We're always looking for new ways to be green, and be seen to be green. It is very important that we do our bit for the environment and we have a responsibility to do so."

6. Croftpak Nurseries

Brian Ascroft's family has been growing speciality vine-ripened tomatoes for three generations. In the old days he and his forebears thumped out maximum cheap heat in the glasshouse of just under an acre, opened up the windows to blitz humidity and airborne diseases and let all that dry heat do its magic on tomatoes that today go to high-end Lancashire supermarket chain Booths.

Then mains gas shot up in price, forcing tomato growers just like the Ascrofts to drop temperature levels and close windows to retain the now expensive heat. The humidity that descended played havoc. Two years ago Croftpak Nurseries near Preston lost hundreds of plants to Botrytis.

Since installing the Schmid UTSR 900kW biomass boiler in Tarleton almost a year ago, he can count the number of diseased tomatoes on the fingers of his two hands. Ascroft tells his son, Peter: "It is just like how we used to grow tomatoes - the proper way."

Biomass changed everything, says the latter, because it slashed the cost of heating, freeing up the family team to open windows, just like the good old days. Ascroft looked at Herz and Reka machines before paying £170,000 for the most expensive Schmid. This marked the biggest company investment since a major glasshouse renewal 20 years ago, and it was worth every penny.

Apart from the quality of tomatoes, Croftpak Nurseries has cut its £60,000 gas bill to virtually nothing, bar the cost of woodchip. It has nevertheless been a learning curve. Gas offers instant heat whereas biomass is more gradual. The biggest challenge was getting used to the new boiler.

Imperative Energy supplied the boiler, but sales director Chris Hughes says biomass is not for everyone. For high-energy users, such as growers of orchids and peppers, it's "fantastic", he adds. But growers of many salad crops that only need heat to take off the frost may prefer other options.

It also requires infrastructure such as pipes as opposed to oil and diesel systems with fixed single heaters. Storage is another consideration, as is access for lorries to truck in fuel for the boiler.

"But for extending the growing season of a glasshouse, it can be a prudent commercial decision against burning fossil fuels," says Hughes. "The installation is Renewable Heat Incentive-eligible, generating an added income stream. Fuel costs are predictable and the fuel is sustainable and often available locally. What's more, carbon emissions are reduced - important for an informed buyer."

Schmid UTSR boiler

Automated features:

  • - Full moving grate combustion chamber.
  • - Full ceramic lining to combustion chamber.
  • - Kindle mode ignition.
  • - Grate de-ashing to separate wheeled bin.
  • - Pneumatic heat exchange cleaning.
  • - Integrated multi-cyclone with ash collection.
  • - Lambda combustion control.
  • - Buffer vessel control software and sensors.

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