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US Renewable Energy Industry Needs the Heat in Biomass

The U.S. biomass thermal industry is poised to offer significant carbon and financial savings for consumers. Biomass for thermal energy is up to 90% efficient; in contrast, using biomass for the production of electricity is up to 40% efficient, and producing transportation fuels from biomass resources uses only 15% of the energy potential in this precious resource. It is vital to our economy – and our planet – to promote energy resources that are efficient and renewable. As part of the broader renewable energy solution, biomass thermal can uniquely address the need for low-cost, locally supported energy sources.

In terms of job creation, a German study has tracked the number of jobs created or sustained by various renewable energy sectors, demonstrating that the industry as a whole can provide meaningful and lasting employment: the solar industry employs approximately 75,000 people in Germany; and wind energy sustains 84,000 jobs; but the biomass industry employs more than 96,000 people.  From harvest to combustion, biomass energy produces persisting and environmentally responsible employment.

Finally, biomass is alluring in its accessibility and affordability.  Efficient and affordable biomass heating systems are available now, in markets across the country, with proven research and development already established.  And the fuel is price-stable and plentiful.  For example, compare the price of heating oil, used by nearly 10% of our population, to the price of wood pellets: A ton of pellets gives you the same amount of heat as 150 gallons of heating oil, when you factor in the efficiency gains from space heating with a pellet stove.  So, if you pay $250 for a ton of wood pellets, you have purchased the equivalent of 150 gallons of oil at $1.67 per gallon, considerably below the Northeast average of more than $2.50 per gallon.  For populations that bear significant exposure to volatile oil prices, the steady, low cost of biomass thermal makes for an economical home heating solution.

Looking Ahead: 2010 Imperatives for the Biomass Thermal Industry

Since we know that the production and management of heat accounts for a third of America’s energy consumption, widespread adoption of biomass for heat will reduce our carbon emissions, reduce our dependence on foreign fossil fuels, bring the focus of our heating to domestic, sustainable resources and create green jobs. 

In order to solidify biomass as a leading heat source in the United States, the industry must focus on a few key improvements in the coming year:

  • lobby for and promote public policy initiatives to secure funding and PR for biomass heating;
  • streamline the manufacturing process to maximize the production of finite biomass resources and
  • create infrastructure for and encouragement of the adoption of bulk biomass distribution and central heating systems.

There are many pending legislative opportunities to promote biomass thermal.  Many of these opportunities are championed by nonprofit green organizations, such as the Biomass Thermal Energy Council and the Alliance for Green Heat.  These initiatives include:

  • The Low Carbon Fuel Standard, a pact by governors of 11 Northeast states to spur the development of low-carbon fuel adoption in the transportation and heating fuel sectors.
  • The Community Wood Energy Program, which provides grants to state and local governments to develop community wood energy plans and finance wood-burning systems for municipal heating and electricity.
  • The Energy Sustainability and Efficiency Grants program, which offers renewable and innovative energy sustainability grants.  

Lawmakers are realizing that clean energy solutions must address the thermal sector and biomass is a clear leader in its efficiency, carbon-neutrality, and cost efficacy for both grantmakers and consumers.

To date, nearly all of the grants and incentives for renewable energy have supported the transportation and electrical energy sectors. Now, legislative leaders are increasingly focused on finding ways to address thermal energy sustainability, reduce greenhouse emissions and deliver relief to consumers as they struggle with volatile heating costs. Several states, with strong leadership from the Northeast, have begun to understand that addressing thermal energy will be a critical component of any successful carbon-reduction strategy.

In terms of the manufacturing process, the existing production plants, along with the countless planned manufacturing facilities, must balance sustainable forestry management practices and feedstock acquisition with the increasing demand for quality biomass fuel.  In order to continue producing efficient, cost-effective, and low-carbon fuel, the plants must secure the highest quality raw material, manage the cost of transportation (of both inbound feedstock and outbound finished product), and, perhaps, innovate processes to create even cleaner burning fuel, accommodating the increasingly diverse and innovative biomass appliance technology

Finally, as our European counterparts have proven, the adoption of biomass central heating systems and the introduction of bulk storage and distribution on a significant national scale can dramatically — and quickly — help to achieve our goals of reducing greenhouse gases and invigorating our domestic economy.  If we take Austria as an example, a large percentage of the population has switched to heating with bulk wood pellets.  In just seven years (from 1999 – 2006), Austrians have seen the percentage of the population installing new oil boilers for heat drop from 36% to less than 1%, resulting in a dramatic reduction in the country’s carbon emissions.

Our collective goal should be to make heating with biomass as convenient as heating with oil or other fossil fuels, where turning on the heat is as easy as flicking a switch.  The technology for such systems already exists, and, with legislative cooperation, education and technical support, and the responsible and efficient production of biomass fuel, we can help convert American homeowners and business owners to clean, green heat.

Charlie Niebling is Chair, Biomass Thermal Energy Council, and General Manager at New England Wood Pellet in Jaffrey, NH. Jon Strimling is Vice Chair, Biomass Thermal Energy Council, and President of Woodpellets.com in Goffstown NH.

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