Improving air quality

Robert Burke, HETAS, warns that the reputation of the entire biomass sector is at stake if the persistent problem of illegal wood burning is not successfully extinguished

Air quality is an issue which is often reported in the press, and you may have seen articles reporting on air quality issues in London in particular. The UK hasn’t achieved targets regarding NOx emissions and is being prosecuted by the EU. This is in a bid to force the government to put a revised action plan in place to bring air quality up to scratch more quickly than current measures will achieve.

Growing problem
Though the majority of emissions problems in London come from road transport, other recent reports highlight the fact that wood burning also contributes a small amount to pollution within urban areas. With incentives such as the RHI predicted to increase the use of biomass heating, there are concerns that emissions from biomass will become a growing problem for the future.

A recent study carried out by King’s College London used a trace element only found in wood smoke (levoglucosan) as a marker to identify which particulates come from wood as opposed to mineral fuel. The study found that during the winter heating season wood smoke in London accounted for around 10 percent of particulate emissions. It was notable that emissions in newly developed areas were substantially less, where houses are better insulated and the installation of a wood appliance would require a new chimney to be fitted. It could be concluded that in these areas there is much more likelihood of a clean burn exempt appliance being fitted in compliance with the clean air act requirements.

Law breaking
London has a predominance of old building stock with poor insulation, usually built when solid fuel was the only heating option. These houses have a brick chimney in almost every room that originally had an open coal fire. Though it is in breach of the clean air act, it is thought that many of these properties have brought an old open fire back into use but are using it illegally for wood burning. With the easy availability of wood logs from garage forecourts, DIY stores and supermarkets, it is very easy for homeowners to open up existing fireplaces and fall into the trap of burning logs which might have a high moisture content.

Burning wood in a smoke control area is illegal unless it is burnt on a Defra exempt clean wood burning appliance. With the King’s College London report highlighting the fact that the inefficient and illegal wood burning on open fires may be the main cause of their findings, this opens up the opportunity to publicise the benefits of clean burn exempt wood appliances over burning the wood illegally on open wood fires.

Fighting back
With pressure on budgets, it is unlikely there will be any incentives from the government to replace open fires with efficient and clean appliances. If nothing is done to counter the illegal and inefficient burning of wood on open fires within smoke control areas, the reputation of the wood burning/biomass industry may suffer. However there is hope that industry, through the actions of manufacturers and retailers, will be able to incentivise the sale of clean burn appliances and publicise the pitfalls of burning wood on open fires.

Installers, maintenance engineers and chimney sweeps also have a role to play on the front line, educating and consumers about burning wood on open fires. Within a smoke control area it is illegal, inefficient and very damaging to the environment. It may be that the customer will replace the open fire with a Defra exempt appliance which will be good for both the industry and the environment.