INSIDE INNOVATION: Biogen Systems

Julian Ackerley, Country Manager at Biogen Systems talks to UKGBC about what its like to be an innovator in the built environment
Julian Ackerley – web

Published on

May 11, 2021

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What is your elevator pitch?

Our service is about taking locally produced biomass from marginal land and putting it into an energy system that is the right size for running a micro grid in association with solar and wind. The aim is to provide enough energy for a development to be taken off-grid altogether. With the correct level of insulation and ventilation heat recovery, one of our E5 systems can typically provide the heat and hot water for 200 homes.

Our systems are modular CHP Gasification units, we have two products, the E3 which produces 25kW of power and 60kW of heat and the bigger E5 system does 50kW of power and 120kW of heat. They normally “live in” shipping containers that can be combined or sit within an energy centre. Once you get above 150kW of power there are more efficient technologies that can be used. Our target audience are mid-size housing developers seeking to build sustainable developments, commercial and leisure, for example hotels and spas that need a lot of heat.

In terms of the biomass we initially began working with wood pellets. However, following a more holistic analysis of carbon footprint we arrived at the conclusion that there were better uses for virgin wood. Although we have the capability to use clean waste wood – for example shredded pallets and packing cases – once we started looking at things such as the carbon impact of processing waste wood to dry, chip and shipping, the product was not as close to being carbon neutral as we are targeting. Only through analysing our Scope 1, 2 and 3 carbon footprint can the real carbon impact of any process be realised.

From this analysis we did find some positives. The process of Gasification of Biomass produces a biochar that is 50% carbon, making it a resource which can be used to sequester carbon. It can then be used as a soil conditioner and if you bury it, it’s like returning coal to the ground, but it can also be used as an additive to cattle feed to reduce methane production.

The post-Brexit agricultural and environmental policy landscape that the UK Government is currently exploring and encouraging farmers and landowners to adopt provides us with a real opportunity. For example, the Environmental Land Management Framework is being brought in to enable more marginal lands to be returned to their natural state for biodiversity purposes, increased carbon stores and also in terms of flood mitigation etc. Short rotation coppice willow is increasingly  being grown on this land, meaning in rural areas this local, low carbon source of energy can replace other high carbon sources of energy.

Our product is niche but it brings together a number of strands that we think will be part of the UK’s solutions to providing a variety of energy sources.

How did you get to where you are today?

The technology we use was invented in Germany over 10 years ago. However, to get us where we are today, it took shareholders with relatively deep pockets, UK Government subsidies in the form of the RHI and ROC schemes and a lot of energy and motivation stemming from the feeling we were doing something worthwhile.

We manufacture the systems in the UK, but there are no subsidies currently for this technology so the majority of our systems currently go for export. However, we are now in a position where the product is cost effective without subsidies, similar to what happened with wind generation.

We wanted to provide a real alternative to where the worst forms of fossil fuels are being used; for example diesel, wet wood or coal in rural areas. Our plan was to have a wide variety of feedstock and a system that is as reliable and easy to use as possible.

What does innovation mean to you?

It is about looking to talk to customers and markets and to try and take a view of where they are heading and whether there is a need that is not going to be met by the existing solutions that are out there. Then to look at how we can apply people and technology to meet that need. It is about trying things that might not always work and persevering.

How hungry is the built environment for innovation?

Our major audience to date has been in horticulture and forestry, so our presence in the built environment is relatively new. I haven’t been contacted much from built environment professionals, but this could be due to government pushing heat pumps. I sense the housebuilders seem to be reluctant to change. The complexity of heat networks and pipes in the street can be a more difficult sell in the built environment. The problem of demand is perhaps not so much to do with our system but due to the wider acceptance of district heating. Once this is accepted it becomes a question of the lowest carbon way to put heat in the pipes.

What needs to change to help encourage more innovation?

I think there could be more competitions or design awards to encourage green innovation.

What are the biggest challenges you have faced as a start-up?

In the past it has been about getting the technology to work in a normal operating environment, rather than a lab or test facility. Now I think the challenge is more around opening up the building development sectors eyes to what the opportunities are. It is about making the increased complexity less daunting and more understandable and commercially attractive to developers.

What’s your advice for new innovators and start-ups in the built environment?

Generally, I would say you have got to have sufficient funding and your idea has got to be worthwhile, there needs to be a need for it. This can be tested by talking to as wide a cross section of people as possible who know about all aspects of your idea. There also needs to be enthusiasm and acceptance that it won’t work first time.

What’s next for your company?

In the UK it is to get a rural biomass, for example short rotation coppice willow, to be used in a system that supplies a housing development (approximately 300 houses) or a hotel and spa and turning that into heat and energy with the biochar by-product. We then want an independent rigorous carbon footprint analysis on that system “from the field to the front door”.

We are also looking at providing a more heat focussed solutions to Industry and Agriculture and have an interesting project using Willow from marginal land to support both enhanced down stream processing of seaweed and assist scale up within the seaweed farming sector. This involves a product that currently needs significant drying using fossil fuels, which reduces the net carbon reduction impact of carbon sequestration at sea. Overall the combination of locally grown perennial energy crops coupled with Biomass CHP Gasification, we believe has the potential to make a real difference to Zero Carbon energy supply in rural areas.