The Heat is On

While the majority of cities and villages in Finland already employ wood-fueled district heating systems, countries such as the U.S. and Canada are just beginning to tap their forestry resources for such widespread networks.
By Lisa Gibson
With forests covering about 86 percent of its land area, Finland is the most extensively forested country in Europe. Given that fact, it seems only natural that the country would utilize the abundant resource for energy, and indeed it has. In 2008, more than 430 wood-fueled district heating systems were operating in Finland, as biomass energy development grows more rapidly there than any other renewable resource.

"In Finland, most of the development we're seeing is going into biomass," says Dominik Röser, research scientist with the Finnish Forest Research Institute. "The most abundant resource we have is definitely wood. In most rural communities, there are small-scale district heating systems based on wood-fuel heating municipal buildings like public libraries, hospitals and schools. Almost every single village has its own small-scale district heating networks." Large cities are also taking advantage of wood resources, and many have combined-heat-and-power systems for municipal buildings as well as for homes. In Röser's home city of Joensuu in North Karelia, about 44,000 households are connected to the network.

"[Finland is] already, at the moment, producing about 20 percent of our total energy consumption from wood, which is one of the highest in Europe," Röser says, adding that in North Karelia, 70 percent of total energy consumption is from renewable resources. "The long-term goal for our area is to become totally oil independent," he says.

The country's forestry industry is large and well developed, allowing for an efficient existing distribution system. "And we are very effectively using the byproducts of those industries," Röser says, citing black liquor, bark and sawdust. But over the past 10 to 15 years, Finland has been working toward developing the materials coming directly from the forests such as logging residues, thinning and stumps. "This is where we can grow in the industry," he says.

Established Expertise

In the 7,000-person city of Eno, Finland, three district heating networks have a combined output of 4.8 thermal megawatts used for public housing and municipal buildings. All three, established separately between 2000 and 2004, are owned by private forest owners and together use a total of 7,700 meters of underground piping. It seems in Finland, district heating networks simply need a local demand to fill in order to warrant development.

"It's always a matter of proximity," Röser says. "When you have enough buildings in a given area, then you can build a district heating network." Apartment blocks are ideal for such systems, he adds, as they hold plenty of customers, all of whom will use heat. The latest trend he's seen in wood-fueled systems development is installation of the systems during construction of the buildings that will use them. For instance, if 50 new homes are being built, it's ideal to install piping when sewage and other systems are installed, for use later when the plant is developed. "It's much easier to put the pipes in at the same time," he says.

Part of the reason Finland has seen such success in its wood-fueled district heating development is that it uses simple combustion technology in most of its systems. "We have relied on technology that is reliable and that can work," Röser says. "When you are trying to establish a market, you have to use something that works and that's where, especially in Finland and Sweden, we've been very successful in installing and developing reliable technology."

Well-developed technology also helps convince citizens of the benefits of such a project. "If that system doesn't work, it's very difficult to convince the public that wood energy is something good," he emphasizes. But public opposition to harvesting from forests is not as fierce and abounding in Finland as it has been recently in the U.S., a fact Röser again attributes to a robust forestry industry. The systems can bring in added revenue for foresters and forest owners, who make up a large part of the country's citizens. "The big difference between North America and Nordic countries is that, especially Finnish and Swedish people are very used to using their forests and that's why it's not very difficult to convince them to harvest," he says. But getting correct information out before development can help if any resistance does crop up, he adds. "In my opinion, there are a lot of misconceptions out there in the public about wood energy. The public doesn't really know what they're dealing with. The public is the first one that has to be convinced and if you don't have the support, you can't do it against their will."

Getting citizens on board can be the biggest challenge in developing district heating systems, Röser says, followed closely by building supply chains. "Our entire harvesting systems had to be somewhat modified and adapted in order to facilitate the harvesting of biomass," he says. The third and final large challenge was to research the environmental effects of the projects and their operations. The Finnish Forestry Research Institute has one of the biggest research programs to look at harvesting technology, social effects and environmental effects, he says.

CHP for Placer County

Citizens in the Lake Tahoe, Calif., area are environmentally conscious too, according to Brett Storey, Placer County project manager, but structures in the region source power downhill from coal-fired plants in Nevada. So Placer County has proposed a small combined-heat-and-power (CHP) facility that could heat buildings such as schools and businesses. "We as a county have been trying to look at biomass as a solution for a number of things," Storey says. The facility, still in the early stages of development, would be located on the north end of the lake and would have the capacity to produce 2 megawatts (MW) of electricity, along with the heat, using forest residues from a 30-mile radius. "We're just sort of looking at this as a pilot project to make sure this is the right thing to do in these sensitive areas," Storey says. "We believe it is and we're hoping that everyone else there does as well."

Currently, forest residue in the region is burned or hauled away. "They've got all this biomass material they don't know what to do with," he says. The county is about to move forward with the land-use permits, along with its environmental impact statement and report, and Storey says the project has support from most of the citizens in the area. "If all goes well, we could construct in 2012 and be operational in 2013," he says.

The county has discussed possible off-take agreements with one school, three current businesses and developers of a nearby proposed project that would include a couple of buildings and some housing structures. The small CHP system will undoubtedly be able to handle the load. "We will have excess capacity," Storey says. "In fact, stage three to this is we're also talking with Caltrans, which is the state transportation agency who is going to redo the highway in the area, about at least heating the sidewalks for the community, but potentially heating the road." Such a measure would help with snow removal, a problem the cities have struggled with, and piping could be laid when the roads are already dug up for reconstruction, as Röser would recommend. "The timing fits perfectly," Storey says. "The cost would be so much less to lay the pipe as they're already doing this." That aspect of the project is in preliminary stages of development, but making optimal use of the facility is favorable. "We're trying to squeeze every single use out of this we can possibly get," Storey says.

The $8 million to $9 million project would be a public private partnership between the county and the local energy company, Storey says, and has already been granted about $3 million for research and development from U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. It would remove anywhere from 75 to 99 percent of pollutants emitted when the forest slash is burned and reduce pollution from fossil fuels for the buildings connected to the heating network. "We're fairly sure that everyone is going to see the benefits of this and get behind us," Storey says.

Significant Benefits

Those benefits, according to developers, are numerous and monumental. In Eno, heating costs have dropped by €15 ($19) per megawatt hour; about 1.6 million liters of oil have been replaced each year; the local economy has saved about €1 million; carbon dioxide emissions are reduced by about 4,000 metric tons (4,400 tons) annually; and employment opportunities have increased, according to Röser. "There are significant benefits," he says. "[Finland] wouldn't put up new systems all the time if they weren't successful."

A proposed 47 MW CHP facility in Greenfield, Mass., will seek to reap most of those same benefits for the community, if it can be developed as planned. Madera Energy is working to establish a market for heat produced at the facility, looking at other developments nearby. "There's an industrial park close to us that could potentially be a demand for that heat, though I don't think it would be a particularly large demand," says Matthew Wolfe, principal of Madera Energy. A neighboring empty lot might be the site of a new greenhouse, offering another option, and a 3.5-mile stretch from the proposed site to the community's downtown area holds a hospital, police station and a school, not to mention the plethora of heat users downtown. "It's not just wishful thinking," Wolfe says. "We've actually had a number of conversations with these potential users of heat. At this point we're just trying to get a better idea of whether or not it would be economically feasible. There are a lot of challenges."
In preliminary discussions, Wolfe made clear his intent to develop a plant that would not only generate power, but also heat, as it offers so many benefits. "We have to design this to be able to do district heating," he says. "It's something that people want to do and as you design a facility, you want it to be as advanced and forward-thinking as possible."

The plant would run primarily on forest-based wood, along with shipping pallets, land clearing and saw-mill residue. Madera has a number of permits in place, but is still waiting for its air permit. A timeline is not yet determined, but Wolfe hopes to begin detailed design and construction in 2011, with operation in late 2013 or early 2014.

Building on Success

Development is made easier in Finland by federal grants that typically cover about 40 percent of project costs, along with cooperatives to construct and operate, Röser says. When district heating development in Finland was in its infancy, municipalities took the risk and made the investment. Now, it's becoming more common for forest owner cooperatives to take the reins in investing and development, selling the energy generated to the municipality, according to Röser. Customers themselves can also come together in a cooperative by paying a fee to cover the investment until it's paid off, although that structure is more common in central Europe, he says.

But employing another community's business model is seldom the perfect solution when establishing widespread district heating networks. "There is no definite or clear blueprint," Röser says. "The challenge is to adapt the right business model to the right conditions. Of course, these business models have worked here and they would also work probably in the U.S. or in Canada, but it's not the one solution that fits everybody."

Amqui, Quebec, has its own unique business model for heating the city's hospital, stemming from extensive research into Finland's success. "They have made it [work] for their conditions and I think that is really the key in all of this technology and know-how," Röser says. "People need to see what we're doing and adapt it to their own conditions." Cooperative Forestry Matapédia bought the boiler for the Amqui system, while the hospital secured the financing for the boiler house. The cooperative contracted the construction of the boiler house and delivered it to the hospital in December 2009, ready to heat, according to Yoland Légaré, cooperative general manager. Energie CFM Inc., a subsidiary of the cooperative, burns biomass from the cooperative's operations in the boiler and sells the energy to the hospital, he explains, adding that the system and model are considered beneficial to the community.

"They have really created a successful business model and heating plant that is a really good pilot case for Canada or for all of North America," Röser says. BIO

Lisa Gibson is a Biomass Magazine associate editor. Reach her at or (701) 738-4952.