Wood-fired boilers want to join in the energy transition!
18,000 wood-fired boilers are expected to be sold in 2019, 50% up from 2018 for all varieties of wood fuel and 100% up in particular for wood pellets. In a market stimulated by the disappearance of oil-fired boilers, the French Biomass Boilers syndicate (“SFCB”) is gearing up for action in a drive to make its solutions more visible, assert its position, and be a force to reckon with in the energy transition.
We speak with the syndicate’s vice-chairman, Thomas Perrissin.
What is the purpose of a Biomass boiler specialists’ syndicate and what are its ambitions?
The SFCB is a very young federation, created two years ago to be the voice of the wood-fired boiler sector. It brings together 18 medium-sized businesses who collectively account for nearly all of the market. They have united to demonstrate that wood-fired central heating is a worthy, sustainable solution in the scope of the energy transition. Representing 43% of renewable energy production, wood sits at the top of the league for renewably-sourced energy in France and offers many advantages, notably environmental. Moreover, it comes from our own French regions, generating an economic impetus therein. Wood heating is an indispensable outlet for the timber sector, helping maintain an economic balance in sawmills by monetizing ancillary products in the production of fuel.
The disappearance of oil-fired boilers is now a real thing. What’s your sector’s stance on this?
Thanks to the government’s fuel-oil exit plan, 3 or 4 million French homes running old oil-fired boilers will be switching to new solutions based on renewables. Wood-fired central heating boilers, which you don’t see a lot of in newbuild, are often chosen to replace fuel oil installations. The potential is huge! A million boilers are likely to be replaced by 2023. It’s an entirely risk-free substitution for consumers, from both the technical standpoint—our equipment is tried and tested—and financially, with wood prices standing up well to competition from fossil and nuclear. As far as our sector is concerned, this represents a genuine opportunity that we must seize by promoting our advantages.
What’s your point of view on the latest revisions to government aids?
There are decisions that sit well with us; others, not so much. We are for example glad to see a new unified premium being implemented, now incorporating the CITE¹ as well as aids from ANAH². For the first time, assistance levels for wood-fired boilers and direct solar heating will be higher than for heat pumps. The government is at last privileging energy from home-based renewable resources. On the downside, we bemoan the withdrawal of aids to higher-income homes. It was a strong stimulus to a consumer profile that’s proved a driving force in the energy transition. Alongside that, there’s wariness over these management aids being entrusted to ANAH, who simply won’t be ready. Although commitment levels are running high for the first quarter of 2020, certain projects are in danger of being delayed by an administrative bottleneck. These changes don’t really help the energy transition; they distress the sectors involved. The signals aren’t clear and nobody is really at ease. It’s not the size of the aids that’s a problem but their comprehension.
Wood-fired heating has long been scorned for its atmospheric pollution. What’s the score nowadays?
The wood energy sector has for the last 15 years been pursuing changes in wood-fired heating equipment and doing so visibly thanks to certification and the Flamme verte (green flame) label. Energy outputs have risen by at least 25% in the space of 15 years, and polluting emissions in smoke concentrations have considerably diminished. I like to quote the example of experiments conducted in the valley of the Arve, the river flowing through Chamonix.
It was the first valley to adopt an Atmosphere Protection Plan, and in 2013 it embarked on a heating appliance renewal programme, with consumer awareness campaigns on the choice of heating equipment and fuels. A pollution measuring system was also implemented. Six years on, the results are striking. Particle emissions have nose-dived despite a constant number of heating appliances or even an increase.
How are you set to tackle 2020?
Almost 25% of French homes—more than 7 million dwellings—are currently operating wood-fired heating systems. The government wants to increase this to 9.5 million dwellings by 2023 and to do so with efficient appliances. There’s no shortage of potential! Over the first three quarters of 2019, sales of boilers running on wood pellets rose by 99% and wood chips by 13%, driven notably by the replacement of oil-fired boilers. A total of 18,000 wood-fired boilers are expected to be sold in 2019 compared with 12,000 in 2018. That’s great! We could nonetheless do better. We’ve been penalized by a shortage of installers with Qualibois Eau accreditation. In a market in full swing, heating specialists failed to anticipate the exit of fuel oil, and installer training in 2018 was way too low. But the delay is now being made up. In an intensive programme, 863 installers were trained in 2019/Q1 against 309 in the same period of 2018, and the market can now count on 30–50% additional installers. We shall enter 2020 geared up and full of enthusiasm. The wheels are in motion. Market performance perhaps won’t be quite as great as in 2019 but it will still remain high.
1 CITE: energy transition tax credit
2 ANAH: national housing agency