With its mature and extensive forests, the Highlands and Islands offer significant opportunities in the development of biomass energy – in fact Scotland’s forests as a whole make up 60% of the UK resource base.
Biomass is the term used to describe any material derived from organic processes. Forestry residue, recycled wood and short rotation coppice are good examples.
Energy from biomass is released through its combustion and can then be harnessed to generate heat or electricity.
It’s an alternative energy technology which is being widely used elsewhere in Europe, particularly Scandinavia.
Here in the Highlands there are already a number of ambitious projects underway and with real potential for many more.
In the past year the new £24m Balcas Biomass Plant on the Cromarty Firth Industrial Park opened for business.
The plant will produce 100,000 tonnes of brites, the Balcas branded wood pellet, which is enough to heat 20,000 homes each year.
The plant, which uses sawdust and other wood fibre, is entirely self sufficient and provides a further 5 megawatts of electricity to the National Grid.
Meanwhile the Agronomy Institute on Orkney has planted 150,000 willows to explore what their potential might be as a green, clean form of heating for homes.
The region is also home to a growing number of community schemes, schools and businesses who are choosing to replace existing fossil fuel boilers with more efficient, environmentally friendly biomass equivalents.
Biofuels is another area where very real opportunities exist in the region. Biofuels – or bioenergy as it is sometimes called - includes processes such as anaerobic digestion where energy and electricity are created from waste matter.
One of the most inspiring biofuel schemes is in the Outer Hebrides. Here the main waste treatment plant for the islands has become the first in the UK to incorporate a commercial-scale anaerobic digester for source separated organic household waste.
The digester – capable of processing more than 700 tonnes of waste every year- is part of a visionary waste management strategy being implemented by the local authority, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.
Anaerobic digestion is also being used by Heat and Power Ltd on Orkney where farm waste is being converted into gas for transport or burning directly for heat and power.
It is enterprising thinking such as this combined with strong engineering expertise that is, quite literally, turning muck into brass.
Bioenergy is created by harvesting organic matter, such as wood or special 'energy crops', and converting it into heat, electricity or transport fuel. The conversion processes used include combustion, anaerobic digestion and fermentation. Trees and plants absorb carbon dioxide as they grow. So when energy is generated from biomass there is no net addition of carbon dioxide so long as the biomass is regrown.
The extensive and mature forests in many parts of the Highlands and Islands offers a significant opportunity to maximise the potential of bio-energy - an alternative energy technology widely used elsewhere in Europe, particularly Scandinavia. As a carbon neutral process, bio-energy generation will play an important role in reducing climate-changing greenhouse gases in the UK. As well as using wood, bio-energy can also be created using other types of fuel, including grasses, willow, seed crops, and even by-products from industries such as food and drink and agriculture.
A number of projects using biomass energy are operational or under development across the Highlands and Islands. These include local housing association developments and many community facilities. Projects such as these are often supported by the Highlands and Islands Community Energy Scotland.
For further information on bioenergy visit our Key Links panel.