Biomass brings self sufficiency to college

Berkshire Agricultural College, wood Chip, biomass, renewable energy

Berkshire Agricultural College has maximised the potential of biomass boilers by growing its own fuel. Tom Woods describes the college’s experiences.

Berkshire College of Agriculture (BCA) is enjoying the success of a 6-year project that has put it on target to fulfil its ultimate aim of having a completely self-sustainable, low-carbon, renewable-heat solution. When the college opted for biomass boiler fuelled by wood chips to provide heating and hot water to part of its campus, it was to replace an existing oil-fuelled boiler. That biomass boiler was supplied by Econergy, a British Gas company.

Biomass is well suited to what we do and our ethos. BCA is a land-based college, and agriculture is at the heart of everything we do. One of our main aims was to reduce our carbon footprint alongside reducing fuel costs. The first phase was the installation of a wood boiler, complete plant room and heat network.

We were really impressed with the system that Econergy installed and opted to further develop heating systems with them because we liked the fact that they can do everything for them under one contract— including maintenance, monitoring, repairs and breakdown.

As facilities expanded, Econergy was commissioned to design and install a second boiler to provide heating and hot water for showers in residential accommodation at the southern end of the college campus, including a Grade 1 listed mansion.

We now consider environmental sustainability as part of everything we do, so we worked with Econergy to include green technologies in the ‘Ecoblox’ energy centre housing the boilers. There is natural ventilation, rainwater harvesting, green roofing and cedar cladding. The energy centre replaced our expensive oil-fired heating and hot-water system.

In additional to the environmental benefits, the projected fuel saving is huge, and we will save an estimated £93 000 per annum. Previously, the oil bill for the section of the college which is now served by the biomass boilers was £112 000 annually.

These considerable savings generated by switching to biomass are now being increased by the college being able to supply its own biomass fuel.

The college opted for willow as it is fast growing. The crop is planted in a 3-year rotation and can now be harvested every year. BCA received a grant from Natural England to help it plant an additional 5.5 ha, taking the growing area up to 18.5 ha. The college has all the farming equipment it needs on the campus — including tractors, trailers and loaders.

Berkshire Agricultural College, wood Chip, biomass, renewable energy
Biomass boilers fuelled by wood grown on site are a major feature of Berkshire College of Agriculture’s sustainability strategy.

It made perfect sense to use our own facilities to grow and harvest wood for biomass as it helps meet out sustainability goals. It also provides a good educational resource, giving students hands-on exposure and experience of growing and harvesting the wood and tasks like taking soil samples. As less transportation is required, it also offers cost and environmental savings.

There has been a certain amount of trial and error in growing our own fuel, but the system is working well.

We’ve learned how to monitor the moisture levels in the fuel so the boilers work efficiently, and the two boilers are now fed with wood we cut and dry ourselves. We now need to increase storage capacity so we can dry the wood to the right moisture content. A major advantage of the process is that the wood only has to be transported about 200 m from the barns where it is dried to the boilers, so our only real outlay is the cost of harvesting.

As well as examining its heating costs, the college is looking at all the ways it can further reduce its carbon footprint, from waste streams to electricity consumption.

Our partnership with Econergy is working very well, and the biomass systems we have in place mean we have the ability to control heating costs and put us well on track to achieve our aim of being 80% self-sufficient.

The life-cycle replacement will mean new boilers in 25 years, and I see us working with Econergy for maintenance and other services. We also hope to install another new boiler in the near future.

Tom Woods is biomass manager for Berkshire College of Agriculture, which is near Maidenhead.

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