Government Clean Air Strategy Throws Wood Burners into the Fire

Government's new Clean Air Strategy will have impact on heating for off-grid properties

Environment Secretary Michael Gove announced the publication today of the Government's much anticipated  Clean Air Strategy which aims to cut air pollution to improve health in the UK.

Air pollution is the fourth biggest threat to public health after cancer, obesity and heart disease and the new government strategy sets out how the government plans to reduce human exposure to particulate matter pollution. These proposals are in addition to the government’s £3.5 billion plan to reduce air pollution from road transport and diesel vehicles, set out in July last year.

The new strategy, which is now out for consultation, sets out several ways in which it plans to tackle air quality issues, but their plans to ensure only the cleanest domestic fuels will be available for sale will raise some eyebrows in certain parts of the heating industry.

The government wishes to remove 8,000 tonnes of harmful particulate matter from entering the atmosphere each year, and claims the burning of wood and coal to heat homes contributes 38% of UK emissions of damaging particulate matter. Cleaner fuels and stoves obviously produce less smoke, less soot and more heat, but in rural off-grid locations access to these cleaner fuels could be very expensive, adding to the challenges already faced by some people struggling with fuel poverty.

With a plan to phase out oil and coal heating, DEFRA  will conduct a cross-departmental review into the role of biomass in future policy for low carbon electricity and heat, focusing on the air quality impacts. This suggests that there may be more issues for BEIS in the delivery of its ECO scheme as it relaunches in October.

Mr Gove has specifically stated that the government will attempt to minimise the air quality impacts of the Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme, for example by tackling non-compliance and consulting on excluding biomass from the RHI if installed in urban areas which are on the gas grid.

Mr Gove will also consult on making coal to biomass conversions ineligible for future allocation rounds of the contracts for difference scheme.

The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) is a government subsidy scheme for eligible renewable heating technology, including biomass. The RHI already has air quality requirements that participants using biomass are required to meet before they can claim support under the scheme. These air quality requirements set limits on the emissions of particulate matter (PM) and oxides of nitrogen (NOX). Participants are also required to use sustainable fuel that is approved for their boiler type.

The Department for Environment is currently trying to change the RHI rules so that applicants will need to show they have up to date environmental permits before they can be paid. This new strategy however goes much further and will impact on installers of biomass boilers and wood burning stoves, as well as suppliers of combustible fuels.