Seeds of a Biomass Coalition Taking Hold

The recent Heating the Northeast with Renewable Biomass conference showed signs that the biomass industry is reaching maturity.

Studies show that more than half of all of the homes in New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine use fuel oil for heat. Analysts often point out that use of oil in the U.S. spikes as much as 30 percent from December through March due to the Northeastern region’s dependence on No. 2 fuel oil for heat. One way to lessen the country’s dependence on oil, then, is to replace heating oil with biomass.

Swapping oil for biomass was the focus of the third annual Heating the Northeast with Renewable Biomass conference and expo that took place in early April. At the conference, organizers presented their vision of increasing the use of biomass for heat from its current 4 percent in 2010 to 18.5 percent in 2025. Doing so would inject $4.5 billion dollars annually into the regional economy and result in 140,200 permanent jobs.

A written “Call to Action” was handed out to the roughly 500 attendees in hopes that each one would send it to his/her governor and representatives in Congress. The statement points out that northeasterners spend more than “$16 billion annually on heating oil alone, of which $12 billion leaves our economy each year.” It also sets out policy priorities for the federal government and each of the northeastern states.

Noticeably absent from the discussion was an emphasis on using biomass for heat as opposed to using it for power. In years past, attendees had expressed worries that when utilities start using biomass as a replacement for coal in power generation, maximum efficiencies of biomass are not achieved. When burned for electricity and fed on the grid, biomass has efficiencies of less than 24 percent. When used for heat, efficiencies are more like 85 percent. In the past, the biomass thermal industry argued vehemently that to sustainably use biomass it must only be used for heat or cogeneration of heat and power.

But the industry has gone beyond chiding utilities for seeking to replace coal with biomass. The industry is not against any technology, said Charlie Neibling at the opening plenary, “we are for biomass thermal.”

About 20 utilities in North America are now co-firing power plants with coal, using wood chips in place of coal or natural gas, say estimates. The U.S. Department of Energy puts woody biomass used for power at about 7,000 MW of installed capacity and the numbers keep growing.

Mark Froling of Froling Energy thinks this is a good step. He explained that biomass thermal stakeholders have recognized that they are not just making pellet energy, but that they are in the business of making energy. In that way, the biomass industry needs to work with utilities instead of fighting against them. Froling said this is sign of maturity. “We are now working with the original stakeholders in the industry,” he said.

Froling said that utilities are increasingly turning to co-firing wood fuel with coal and that’s another positive application. Utilities are not likely to build new biomass electricity plants right now, especially with the economy the way it is, he said. “I think it is easy — you are going to see a small amount of utilities co-firing first,” he said. “Co-firing is a nice easy step because you can inject the wood fuel and effectively reduce the carbon.”

Perhaps one reason that the biomass thermal industry has moved beyond working against utilities is the recognition that the U.S. has excellent biomass resources and that lots of it can be used sustainably.

Froling admits that there is only a set amount of biomass that can be harvested annually in order for the industry to be self-sustaining. However, he says that the U.S. is nowhere near that limit.

By way of comparison, he said the U.S. uses close to 3 percent of its biomass reserves for power or heat, whereas Austria uses 32 percent and Sweden uses 23 percent “and they are all still harvesting sustainably.” Each of those countries has a thriving lumber industry, he added.

As the rising tide lifts all boats, the growing use of biomass by all energy stakeholders is good for the industry. The seeds of coalition are starting to take hold.

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