Biomass Heat is Not Coal

Recent rules for proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reduce emissions from boilers could have the unfortunate effect of killing the sustainable and rapidly growing industry of biomass heat.

Don’t get this wrong: it’s important to support reducing greenhouse gas emissions, particulates and mercury pollution from burning fossil fuels. But by lumping biomass heating boilers—which do not emit mercury—together with large, coal-burning plants, the EPA has failed to distinguish the vast difference between electricity generation from coal and heat generation from waste wood via biomass boilers.

Widely used and promoted in Europe as a way to reduce reliance on coal and oil, biomass heating systems for commercial and institutional buildings are spawning a brand new and fast-growing industry in the US, one that we can ill afford to see regulated out of existence, especially in the Pacific Northwest.

Biomass fueled heating systems located in buildings and homes are carbon-neutral when waste wood is used. They are also clean—a boiler large enough to provide all the heat and hot water for a 25,000-square-foot building puts out fewer harmful emissions than the average EPA certified wood stove used to heat a small home.

What’s more, biomass heat boilers are 85% efficient as opposed to biomass electricity generation, which is only 25% to 30% efficient at best. Stand-alone biomass electricity generation facilities are also frequently so large that they require the sourcing of fuel from hundreds of miles away. Biomass boilers, on the other hand, can easily be installed into schools, airports, hospitals, and other buildings, and in areas like the Pacific Northwest, they can be located close to the source of waste wood, reducing the need to transport fuel.

In today’s economic climate, one of the biggest benefits of biomass heat is its job-creation potential. From building a pellet mill that produces fuel for biomass boilers at a lumber company to installing a biomass boiler to heat a regional airport, these projects are real and have created dozens of construction jobs in one Oregon county alone. Long term, biomass heat is estimated to be able to produce upwards of 4,500 new full-time jobs in Oregon, and a similar amount in neighboring states, if the industry is allowed to survive and thrive.

The proposed EPA rules could end all this progress. They are aimed at particulates and carbon monoxide in all boilers, and require stringent testing and advanced emissions control technology. All this makes sense for big coal plants, but not for small boilers heating schools, homes, and hospitals. Worse yet, many of these projects have received federal stimulus dollars designed to spur clean energy development and create jobs. Regulating the industry out of existence now would be a sad waste of taxpayer dollars. 

It’s time the EPA took a more nuanced view of biomass energy and recognized that commercial biomass boilers are not coal plants. They are the most efficient, cost-effective, and sustainable heating source available. To kill the biomass heat industry now would be to turn our backs on thousands of jobs and to cut off money that can be pumped into local economies—money that would otherwise exit those economies to pay for foreign oil, natural gas, and coal. Let’s reduce emissions, but let’s reduce the right ones, and not throttle the efficient, sustainable biomass heat industry before we’ve had a chance to show the good it can do.

Andrew Haden is Vice President with A3 Energy Partners. He has worked on sustainable economic development and rural infrastructure projects in the USA and Sweden for over ten years, and focuses on developing infrastructure in rural communities that increases economic self-reliance using local natural resources.

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