Playtime is Over: Why September Means Biomass Advocacy or the Consequences of Inaction

By Joseph Seymour
For biomass stakeholders, Labor Day means two things: the beginning of the heating season and the end of the U.S. Congress' August recess. Congress' return to Washington signals the final opportunity to pass much-needed biomass thermal incentives and programs. These bills could dramatically grow the market for biomass fuels and appliances. Despite broad energy legislation dominating headlines, an array of targeted biomass thermal initiatives is just below the surface, awaiting the right political support and timing.

One such key bill is the Home Star Energy Retrofit Act (H.R. 5019), a two-tiered point-of-sale rebate program for home efficiency improvements that includes biomass heating systems. Among its provisions, Home Star would provide $1,000 toward the purchase and installation of qualifying biomass heating appliances, and a lesser amount for a wood stove swap out. The bill passed the House in May, and it is undergoing budget scoring in the Senate; deficit concerns have sent its supporters in search of budget offsets ($6 billion worth). Home Star will likely find its home in a larger "green jobs" package later in the fall before mid-term congressional elections.

Meanwhile, a more focused package of biomass thermal investment tax credits is still looking for its home in Congress. A companion set of legislation in the House (H.R. 5918) and Senate (S. 3188) would create a 30 percent tax credit for commercial and industrial biomass thermal systems. The other pair, H.R. 2080 and S. 1643, would provide up to a $6,000 tax credit for qualifying residential biomass thermal systems. Together, these bills would boost investment in clean burning, efficient biomass thermal systems for all sectors.

Large-scale biomass thermal systems, such as district heating and combined heat and power (CHP), stand to gain from passage of the American Clean Energy Leadership Act (S. 1462). Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., working with the Biomass Thermal Energy Council, attached an amendment to section 610 of the bill that would establish tradeable thermal Renewable Energy Credits tied to increasing efficiency rates. Biomass thermal producers would receive 1 credit for operating at less than 50 percent efficiency, 1.25 credits for 70 to 90 percent efficiency, and 1.5 credits for over 90 percent efficiency. Until late July, this bill looked like the vehicle to move major energy reform, but Senate leadership has changed course and is pursuing a scaled-down approach.

The recent introduction of the bipartisan Thermal Renewable Energy and Efficiency Act (H.R. 5805) offers an alternative incentive trifecta for large biomass thermal systems. Capitalizing on the success of district heating in St. Paul, the bill's advocates have proposed increased grant funding for district energy systems, expanded tax-exempt bonding, and a thermal energy production tax credit on a Btu-to-kilowatt basis similar to renewable electricity generation. The bill, nicknamed TREEA, has a diverse supporting coalition, including the BTEC, Sierra Club, International District Energy Association, and U.S. Clean Heat and Power Association. Initial enthusiasm is strong, but with Congress' session closing quickly, TREEA must find a place in a larger energy bill or face being reintroduced in the 112th Congress.

BTEC has led in tracking and analyzing these biomass priorities, matched by education and outreach to impacted businesses, consumers and everyday citizens. We have produced fact sheets, action alerts and policy newsletters that translate complex bills into communicable ideas. Yet for all the collective and credible messaging, strong biomass advocates such as the BTEC and other biomass trade associations are only as effective as their individual members.

Biomass advocacy and legislative participation may seem foreign, wasteful and cynical for an industry that has grown without the historical aid of government incentives. However, if our industry wants to help the nation realize job growth, reduced oil dependence and lower energy costs, we must actively support legislation such as the bills mentioned above. Share your business passion and expertise with a mission-driven trade association or nonprofit. Discuss biomass with your legislator's energy staff member. Respond intelligently to proposed regulations and industry reports. And, above all, recognize that if we fail to act, all the work that brought biomass issues to the national forefront will fade. Biomass regrows naturally, but biomass thermal legislation needs sustained, vocal support.

Joseph Seymour is a Program Associate at the Biomass Thermal Energy Council. Reach him at