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Biomass or LPG? The burning issues for poultry farmers

Chickens roaming freely on a farm
Biomass or LPG? The burning issues for poultry farmers
As a poultry farmer, you’ll have a high requirement for heat, all year round.

You’ll need to keep your shed and floor temperatures at the right level to ensure high broiler welfare and good chick growth – and, with fuel being one of your largest overheads, you’ll no doubt be looking to save energy wherever you can.

This is where the use of biomass can seem a very attractive proposition. In recent years UK government has been incentivising farmers to switch to such low carbon, renewable fuel sources in return for payments under the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI).

But think carefully before you choose to make an expensive and long-term investment in biomass and take time to consider some of the other off-grid fuel options available to you, like gas. Here’s our short guide to help you analyse all the factors, including return on investment, capital costs, system efficiency and long-term fuel security.

Biomass rates of return

The RHI will pay you for achieving lower carbon emissions over the 20-year life of the heating technology you install. Tariffs have been calculated to offer a target rate of return of 12% on the initial investment.

However, given that traditional fuels are your alternative to renewable technologies, recent reductions in the price of oil and gas are likely to affect the RHI’s target rate of return. Some industry predictions suggest this could drop to as little as 2% to 3%, which could make a biomass installation a far less financially attractive fuel option for you.

The take up of biomass boilers has been higher than Department of Energy and Climate Change’s (DECC) expected, meaning there are  likely to be further ‘degressions’ to the tariffs of ‘small’ biomass installations under 200kW – all of which means you could be locked in to a lower rate of payment for many years.

Renewable energy efficiency

To be accredited as a renewable source of energy, biomass boilers need to achieve an 85% efficiency rate for converting fuel to energy.

However, in a recent study by the DECC (Source:   Steve Luker Associates Ltd in partnership with re:heat. Desk-based review of performance and installation practices of biomass boilers. Department of Energy and Climate Change. 2014)  it was found that biomass boilers in the non-domestic sector, which account for almost 90% of payments under the RHI, were around 10% to 20% less efficient than expected. Unfortunately, the only compensation for this, is to burn more fuel, raising your energy costs further.

High capital investment to meet your heating needs

You’ve perhaps heard of other poultry farmers taking out loans to purchase their biomass boilers and plant, using the payment they get from the RHI to pay off the loan. With biomass technology still relatively unproven and with no real track record of reliability or efficiency, this needs some careful thought, as you could be locked-in to using the fuel for years to come.  Add to this potential fuel supply issues and the increasing costs of the biomass wood chip and pellets and you have a lot to think about.

In contrast, indirect heating technology using low-carbon LPG has proven its reliability in many poultry shed heating applications. Such a system can be as little as one third of the costs of a biomass installation and requires less maintenance too, so is well worth considering as an easily-installed alternative.

Careful specification pays dividends

Broiler growth is vital to your profitability and every farmer knows that getting the heating levels in the shed right is critical.  At the heart of this is a correctly-specified boiler. An oversized system means higher capital costs and lower efficiencies, whereas an undersized system will not provide enough heat and could supress chick growth.

With biomass technologies still relatively new, there aren’t as many energy experts available as there are for other off-grid fuels.  This is where it pays to do your homework and select your energy specifier or installer with care. Check their track record in commissioning biomass systems for other poultry farmers and be sure they understand your demand for heat.

To keep costs down and speed up the rate of return, some installers could be tempted to specify cheaper, lower quality biomass systems. Cheaper systems will not last as long and are likely to be less efficient and prone to breakdowns. In fact, a recent report from the DECC found that the RHI was encouraging schemes to install inappropriate biomass boilers with a capacity 1kW below the 200kW threshold for small commercial applications, to secure higher rates of return, with the heating balance made up by traditional fuel boilers.

Gas offers security of supply

It’s also important to get the biomass feed and storage systems specified correctly to avoid fuel shortages. It’s not unheard of for farmers to have to restock their pellet silos every two days due to inappropriate specifications. Mass imports have increased the dependency on foreign sources of supply too and as more commercial enterprises move towards biomass, simple supply and demand suggests that the price of fuel for biomass systems will increase in the future. If this happens, it will most likely offset any financial benefit you would get from your RHI payments.

Using an off-grid gas as your fuel source comes with far greater peace of mind; there’s a readily-available supply and gas boiler technology is tried and tested so it is far simpler to specify the right size for your shed heating requirements. After all, who doesn’t want lower carbon dioxide and moisture levels in the poultry house, improved animal welfare and measurably higher yields?

For more information, or to see how we can help you make the best energy choice for your poultry farm, please visit: poultry rearing with LPG.


Managing Partner at Calor LPG fuelled poultry farm

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