Utilising Biomass

The United Kingdom has committed to sourcing 15 per cent of its overall energy from renewable sources by 2020 through the European Commission’s Renewable Energy Directive. By exploring several sourcing options, the UK government found that utilising renewable biomass has the potential to provide about 30 per cent of its 2020 goal.

The potential advantages of biomass are clear: biomass produces locally sourced, efficient energy that benefits local businesses and reduces financial and environmental risks associated with transport. Every region in the UK can produce biomass, which allows for the establishment of local production networks that minimise transport costs.

But the risks associated with this emerging industry are numerous. You must carefully consider the risks of working in the biomass industry in order to pre-emptively address any hazards and thus help to ensure that your investment is successful.

Sources and Methods

Biomass is a general term for any biological material from living or recently living organisms that can be used to produce heat, electricity or transport fuel. The term “biomass” typically describes plant-based materials, but can also refer to material derived from animals.

Biomass is divided into four main groups:

  • Wood
  • Other energy crops
  • Agricultural residues
  • Food and industrial wastes
  • Wood is the most popular form of biomass due to its abundance and ease of use. It is either burnt directly to produce heat or used to produce steam, which generates electricity.

The original energy source for all biomass is the sun. Properly converting biomass to bioenergy releases that energy cleanly and efficiently. Currently, there are several methods for converting biomass into bioenergy. The following are five of the most prominent methods:

  • Direct Combustion: heating water or generating steam to power a turbine for electricity generation
  • Gasification: using heat to convert solid biomass into a combustible gas
  • Fermentation/Distillation: converting the sugars from biomass into bioethanol
  • Anaerobic Digestion: capturing carbon dioxide and methane from the bacterial breakdown of organic waste
  • Conversion of Algal Biomass: harvesting the enormous energy potential of algae oil

Although these biomass energy methods resemble our current methods for deriving energy from fossil fuels, there is a big difference between the two. Breaking down biomass and fossil fuels produces the same effects: energy and carbon. The difference is that when we break down fossil fuels, they release extra carbon dioxide captured from the atmosphere many years ago; whereas when we break down biomass, it releases the same amount of recently-captured carbon into the atmosphere as if it had been naturally decomposing. In this way, fossil fuels introduce a surplus of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere and exacerbate the greenhouse effect, while biomass only continues a natural, sustainable carbon cycle.

Investment Risks

Biomass provides a tentative solution to one of this century’s biggest environmental problems: the recent exponential rise of greenhouse gases. Yet, conversion processes need to be perfected and various risks need to be identified and mitigated if biomass is to be economically feasible at a large scale. Major risks include:

  • Environmentalist Objections. Some activists insist that, because biomass still releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, more research is needed to identify a cleaner form of energy.
  • Infrastructure Costs. The price of constructing a bioenergy infrastructure is considerably higher compared to other energy sources.
  • Insufficient Funding. The UK has implemented grant incentives to spur participation, but funding is inadequate at this stage.

Health and Safety Considerations

The processes for converting biomass into bioenergy are well researched and widely understood. However, increasing the use of biomass at both large and small scales could introduce a number of health and safety implications for workers in the biomass industry. These include:

  • Exposure to high temperatures and pressure
  • Presence of combustible gas
  • Fire or explosion hazards
  • Adverse respiratory health effects from new or existing crops
  • Gas leaks
  • Chemical exposure
  • Falls into slurries/manures
  • Fume exposure
  • Microbiological risks

As the biomass industry expands, workers will increasingly face risks with doing their jobs alongside hazardous materials. The risks of slips and trips and working from height are intensified by the presence of possibly toxic materials.

Pre-emptively addressing and mitigating these risks by implementing stringent health and safety programmes, including risk avoidance language in contractual agreements and transferring risk using insurance, will help promote safety and reduce risk. Reducing risk is vital to protecting your investment.

Support in Your Endeavour

To discuss your risk transfer options when planning and operating a biomass system, contact the insurance professionals at Churchill Insurance Consultants Ltd. We will be able to assist you in assessing your unique risks and needs at every stage of the project and secure the appropriate cover.

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