Biofuel: Using hydrotreated vegetable oil in home heating

2022-06-03 22:04:53 By : Ms. Ellen Yang

Firebird Heating Solutions HVO trials are proving how household greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by 90% with CO2 emissions decreasing by up to 6 tonnes annually. 

Today, we’re staring down the oil boiler — currently the Dick Dastardly of the home heating story. Even with over 90% efficiencies in a modern condenser boiler, the carbon emissions from around 686,000 home heating liquid oil boilers are daunting in our journey toward a carbon-zero future for Ireland.

Their installation is banned from this year for new homes (depending on the date of planning being granted), in the Government-led charge to an all-electric home heating future fronted by heat pumps of as much as 300% efficiencies.

Responsible for somewhere in the area of 4.5 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year, domestic kerosene will be burdened with escalating carbon taxes rising to €80 per tonne by 2030. Still, the modern oil boiler (after all, it’s not the fuel, it’s the mechanics) has a trick up its flue.

All new boilers for domestic homes offered by market leaders Grant Engineering and Firebird, are biofuel-ready for a largely renewable, fossil-free, calorie-rich fuel that’s little known outside the transport sector.

It’s a solution that could reduce the carbon emissions of a standard oil burner to a paltry 0.036kg of CO2 per kWh (energy), compared to .245kg of CO2 per kWh for kerosene in a three-bedroom Irish home.

According to its supporters in OFTEC, that’s lower than mains gas and electricity, slashing 90% of the greenhouse gases and a significant amount of other undesirable gases including Nitrogen Oxide (NO).

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Firebird, an Irish firm of 40 years standing, has been lauded as the only manufacturer of boilers in Europe with Nitrogen Oxide (NO) emissions below 60mg/kWhr, halving the European limit of 120mg/kWhr.

Hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO) is made up of used vegetable oil, animal fat, sustainably produced vegetable oils and other bio-liquids and residues. It’s the second-generation bio-diesel — with the first being known as FAME, for fatty acid methyl ester.

It’s hoped by OFTEC that HVO will be introduced as a blended kerosene/HVO product throughout the country, eventually becoming widely available as pure HVO by 2025 as the supply and infrastructure allow.

David Blevings, of the strategic management team at OFTEC, argues: “Modern appliances on sale today are in favour, already biofuel friendly and we envisage consumers will be using biofuel to heat their home as early as 2023, with the next generation of liquid fuels being introduced over the next 10 years further reducing emissions.

Any boiler can be converted, a modern appliance will only require minor adaptations with older models requiring a new burner and some bio-friendly components at a cost of less than €500.

The performance difference is imperceptible, he says. “There is very little difference and HVO is marginally more calorific than kerosene. An annual service is all that is required, similar to an oil-fired boiler.”

With the use of HVO, Mark Doyle, general manager of Firebird, says greenhouse gas emissions from a home could be reduced by 88% from the current 6.5 tonnes of CO for an average four-bedroom home, reducing our national burden by four million tonnes.

HVO is already heating thousands of homes across the world, and Firebird recently secured a valuable contract with Thermogroup of Thessalonica to supply HVO-compliant boilers to thousands of homes and businesses in Greece and Cyprus. Firebird’s three manufacturing facilities in Cork (Baile Mhic Íre), Northern Ireland and England, all run on HVO, and have done for the past 18 months.

So just what is HVO, and how can it replace kerosene in an existing, appropriate oil boiler? What stands between us and the HVO alternative to other low-carbon heating technologies to get to net carbon zero by 2050?

“HVO is already ISCC certified (International Sustainability and Carbon Certification),” says Mark Doyle.

“Rural properties are generally poorly insulated so converting to an alternative heating system is expensive. 200 homes have already been converted to HVO through our trade associations work (12 by Firebird).

“We would argue that an air source heat pump (ASHP) is not a mature technology, and therefore a big risk by the Government. Rural homes have some of the lowest BERs but they still need to contribute to the carbon solution.”

To retrofit a boiler with an HVO burner will cost in the area of €400 to €500 to clean the system and tank of kerosene and then to install a new, calibrated fuel-specific burner where needed.

Now, that’s cheap, but with any house with a C1 rating or less (roughly 87% of our current housing stock), ideally, other improvements would be implemented in a comprehensive, holistic project as soon as financing allowed. 

We love our oil burners because of that reactive fast response, but good insulation, ventilation and airtightness is what lifts a house from cosy to a true performer with comfort year-round, manageable energy bills and great air quality as standard. HVO, like BioLPG is a fascinating “drop in” solution.

The radiators can stay, it can serve UFH, would work as a hybrid heat source where solar thermal and/or ASHP handled your water. Recognised as a biofuel, and matched to upgraded heating controls (SEAI aid granted), your BER could soar.

Due to the hesitation of the State, HVO is twice the price of kerosene currently. It’s taxed as a transport fuel rather than renewable heating oil. As with all fuels, we want to use only as much as we need for a comfortable home environment.

The efficiency and heat output of HVO is identical to that of kerosene, so in changing out the fuel alone, the user will not perceive any difference. The maintenance is exactly the same.

HVO is currently not recognised by the SEAI as a home heating product. So, when can we expect to see change and State-backed incentives covering biofuels?

OFTEC also argues that retaining the existing heating system and upgrading it, together with improving insulation levels and decarbonising the heat source is the cost-optimal way forward for what it terms “off grid” homes in rural Ireland.

The players in the market are stepping up while commentators like myself wait to see if the Government will back a HVO. Grant Engineering together with its line of biofuel-compatible Vortex boilers, and vibrant R&D, have shown their commitment to HVO, launching a Service Engineer Biofuel Conversion Course through their eLearning academy.

This covers a basic introduction to HVO, including the necessary steps required to convert boilers to run on this biofuel.

David Blevings is hopeful. “The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications Eamon Ryan, announced the development of a National Heat Study which is concerned with the de-carbonisation of the heating sector.

“The Minister’s remarks came in recent response to a parliamentary question from Deputy Joe Flaherty (Fianna Fáil, Longford-Westmeath) on whether the Government has given consideration to the use of biofuels and hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO) in home heating.” Minister Ryan announced that the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland is currently developing a comprehensive National Heat Study.

The study will examine a range of options — including the use of bio-liquids —aimed at decarbonising the heating and cooling sectors in Ireland until 2050.

Mr Ryan also made reference to the potential introduction of a renewable heat obligation in the heat sector: ‘The Department is considering the responses received.’”

Mark Doyle concludes: “Demand for renewable fuels is increasing and so is the supply of waste materials to manufacture them.

“Large quantities of bio-diesel are already being used in transport fuels and as electric vehicles become more common the raw material can be used for HVO instead.

“Production of HVO is scheduled to increase by 300% up to 2025 and is expected to increase even faster as the demand grows. We have spoken with USA and European HVO manufacturers, and their plans are to increase production to meet demand.

“Finally, look at the brand names on the air source heat pumps. These are not Irish companies or Irish jobs. We are effectively moving Irish jobs to China or foreign destinations and truthfully not fully fixing the problem.”

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