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Biomass boilers ‘less polluting than thought’

A major report into the impact of biomass on air quality in Scotland has been welcomed by the renewables industry, which hopes it will tackle worries about emissions raised by local authorities.

The report, completed by AEA Energy and Environment for the Scottish Government and titled Measurement and Modelling of Fine Particulate Emissions from Wood Burning Biomass Boilers, was released earlier this month.

It forecasts the potential effect of growing biomass use in Edinburgh and Dundee in 2010 and 2020.

AEA said tests on biomass boilers used in Scotland showed the emission of particulates PM10 and PM2.5 was much lower than predicted in a previous study it had carried out in London.

But the report said councils still need to approach the issue carefully as the relatively small contributions to background levels could still threaten air quality improvement targets in areas where traffic pollution has led to high levels of particulates.

Dr Richard Dixon, director of WWF Scotland which is backing the expansion of biomass use to combat climate change, said: “This is an important report as it offers a very real analysis of the situation and suggests that problems have been overstated in the past.

“There are genuine concerns that there are certain places where you would not want to put wood burning biomass boilers. But there are huge urban areas where there is no problem and even a huge uptake of biomass boilers would not take you over air quality limits.

“I hope the main practical outcome of the report is that councils which have been wondering whether to go ahead with biomass projects will be reassured. The vast majority of pollution is caused by cars and other vehicles. That is the big issue we should be focusing on.”

The Scottish Government asked AEA to look at the issue due to the importance of biomass to its renewables strategy and concerns raised by several councils.

As part of the project, AEA developed a screening tool to help councils assess future proposals. H&V News reported in February that Edinburgh City Council had dropped plans for biomass schemes at seven schools due to worries over air quality targets.

Cllr Robert Aldridge, Edinburgh Council’s environment leader, said this week: “We are reviewing the report, but we understand that further guidance to local authorities on the use of biomass will follow from the Scottish Government. Until then, Edinburgh will continue to adopt a precautionary approach to biomass.”

A spokesman for trade association Scottish Renewables said: “The report shows that an increase in emissions from biomass would only be problematic in those few areas which are already facing failure to meet air quality targets.

'This emphasises the need to address particulate emissions coming from other sources which would still contribute over 90 per cent of emissions in the future, even with a major roll-out of biomass technology.”

Dan Gates, from biomass specialist Wood Energy, said: “The situation has been pretty harmful. People were told by planning departments that biomass was not appropriate. Now, hopefully, we will get the chance to make our case.”