Cheers to Biomass in Boston

Woody biomass has been a controversial topic in the Northeast U.S., but speakers and attendees at the Northeast Biomass Conference & Expo demonstrated unwavering confidence in the future success of the industry.
By Anna Austin and Lisa Gibson
A thriving and vibrant city, Boston proved to be an appropriate venue for a conference about an industry possessing those very qualities. Drawing a crowd of about 300, the region-specific event allowed intimate discussions of current and future utilization of the Northeast's biomass resources, as well as a significant array of associated political, technological and economical concepts.

Cellulosic ethanol developer Mascoma Corp.'s Justin van Rooyen kicked off the conference with a compelling keynote address centered on the modeling and viability of cellulosic biorefineries in the U.S., along with the advantages of multiple, highly flexible product lines. "We [U.S.] know we're ahead in the biorefining world, but what are the pieces that we need?" van Rooyen said. "We're very fortunate to have tremendous academic institutions, and the U.S. DOE has done a phenomenal job funding the technologies coming out of these institutions, so we really do have the pieces in hand to do this."

Van Rooyen said he believes the cellulosic ethanol industry is at least five to 10 years away from full commercialization. "The U.S. has proven time and time again its ability to move fast," he said. "We just have to have the willpower." Biorefining models don't just make sense in the U.S., he added, but also in developing countries worldwide, on local and broader scales. "Imagine communities self-supported by these biorefineries-feeding themselves, clothing themselves, fueling themselves. I strongly believe this is the way the [cellulosic] industry will be going in the future."

Following van Rooyen's address, the initial plenary session panel centered on the highly publicized and controversial Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences' "Massachusetts Biomass Sustainability and Carbon Policy Study." Since its release in June, woody biomass has been under fire. Tom Walker, consultant for Manomet, was on hand to discuss the study.

Contemplating Carbon

Walker was one of five speakers on the panel that explored the study's methodology, findings and potential implications. Massachusetts' renewable portfolio standard (RPS), one of the leading in the nation, at 15 percent by 2020, has been a great success, Walker said. He emphasized more than once that the study's results are not translational to other states, and all regions looking into biomass utilization for bioenergy should conduct their own studies.

Through a competitive solicitation, the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources chose Manomet to conduct the study, determining forest biomass's impacts on greenhouse gases, forest and forest ecologies and sustainability. The study found a debt-then-dividend model where forest biomass releases more carbon dioxide than fossil fuels do initially, but that debt is paid off as the forests re-grow, with growth rates depending on a number of other factors such as forest management. The feedstock taken into account in the study was strictly forest-derived, including logging residues, but not mill residues, tree and landscaping clearing, construction debris or other wastes. That has been one of a few points of contention in the biomass industry, as most plants would use such wastes.

"I will say that the DOER and Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs were very pleased with the sound technology, but we recognize its limits," said panel moderator Dwayne Breger, director of renewable and alternative energy development for DOER, citing the feedstock concerns and reiterating that the study findings are specific to Massachusetts.

"I think there's been a lot of controversy in the press as far as how far-reaching our results are," Walker said. During the six-month study, the researchers, which included representatives from other agencies such as the Pinchot Institute and the Forest Guild, developed an integrated energy system forestry model with a baseline scenario of forest operations in Massachusetts similar to that in the recent past. "A key element that we've done is to explicitly take this business-as-usual scenario," he said. Forest biomass will be carbon neural if the forests grow back and people don't question that, Walker said. The question is when and what factors could affect it.

"As you can see, carbon neutrality is not instantaneous," Walker said. Dividends with replacement of coal-fired electric capacity begin at about 20 years, the study found. When biomass is replacing natural gas capacity, the carbon debt is still not paid off after 90 years. When using logging residues only, however, the debt is paid off much sooner. "For waste material, carbon recovery can be relatively rapid regardless of harvest or technology assumptions," he said, adding that when live trees are harvested, carbon recovery profiles are longer.

Broad Policy Implications

The DOER will use the study to refine its RPS regulations, and biomass energy has been suspended from inclusion, pending the results of the study. The EEA has requested new final rules be put in place by the end of this year.

Broader policy implications of the study include the fact that the baselines will be different in different regions; different sources of biomass have different greenhouse gas profiles; biomass technology choices matter toward recovery times; and forest management can either accelerate or decelerate carbon recovery. But current emissions targets are more short-term focused and don't account for biogenic sources with payback periods, according to panelist Bob Perschel, northeast regional director of the Forest Guild and study contributor. "This is going to be a huge problem with the public," he said.

Opposition has cropped up all around the country and some groups have taken the Manomet study results as confirmation of their viewpoints. Forest depletion is one of their concerns, but panelist Michael Goergen, executive vice president and CEO of the Society of American Foresters, said that the country has about the same amount of forests today that it did 100 years ago. "We've maintained the same amount of forest despite an increase in population from 87 million to more than 300 million," he said, attributing that fact to certification, best management practices and other forestry maintenance factors. The U.S. currently has about 755 million acres of forestland.

Positive attributes of biomass include improving utilization and thus profitability and management options. "Robust markets are a very, very important part of maintaining those forests," Goergen said. The use of small-diameter material could replace some diminishing markets, maintaining healthy forests for longer rotations, he added. On the downside, though, high utilization of forest biomass could limit variability of habitats, although Goergen said he doesn't know if that would happen for sure.
Sustainability of forest biomass utilization depends on a number of factors including best management practices, habitat, site preparation and markets. "Markets keep forests forested," he said. "Biomass has the potential to keep these lands the way we want them."

Fellow panelist Dave Tenny, president and CEO of the National Alliance of Forest Owners, agreed. Tenny shared a 2007 quote from the U.S. EPA that says carbon dioxide from biomass will not increase carbon dioxide in the air if it's done sustainably. Now, though, the EPA is leaning toward regulating biomass emissions similar to those of fossil fuels in its proposed Tailoring Rule. The result of that regulation would be uncertainty in the marketplace, he said. "You end up with regulation of the value chain in a way that it's never been regulated." In addition and also in disagreement with the 2007 EPA statement, the federal renewable fuels standard restricts the utilization of 90 percent of U.S. forests.

"We are at a precipice in our country," Tenny said. "We're trying to decide as a country whether we're serious about renewable energy." In order for that portfolio to include biomass energy, the industry needs clear signals for investments to flow. "Right now, those signals are pretty muddy," he said.

Reviewing Renewable Road Maps

The pellet and wood chip industries have been hit hard by the economic downturn, according to Charlie Niebling, a second plenary session panelist. "As has anyone making heat out of wood, we've seen a decline over the years, and that's mainly a response to what's happened nationally and globally," he said.

In order to get the industry moving again, the Biomass Thermal Energy Council, of which Niebling is chairman, along with several other organizations such as the Alliance for Green Heat and the Pellet Fuels Institute, have developed a road map for their particular sector, making relevant the issues, needs, concerns and opportunities for renewable biomass as a thermal energy source in the Northeast. Titled, "Heating the Northeast with Renewable Biomass: A Bold Vision for 2025," the plan outlines feedstock resources that are available or that could be reasonably drawn upon in the future as a resource to make heat in the Northeast, taking into account all existing demands for wood and agricultural resources in the region for energy or other purposes. "After going through that, we cut our estimates in half to introduce a considerable amount of conservatism, and our results were that we can sustain production over time through 2025 with around 19 million green tons of woody and agricultural biomass per year throughout the Northeast and New York."

Out of that number, about 7.5 million green tons of biomass is from forest resources and 12.5 from agricultural resources mostly drawn from New York. "The state breakdown, interestingly, very closely mirrors results from the Manomet study," Niebling said. "Based on that supply, we asked ourselves what is conceivable in terms of using biomass for thermal energy here in the Northeast. If we're going to have a revolution in renewable energy as it relates to heat or thermal output, it should start here. All the right signals are in place to make it happen and we believe the Northeast is the part of the country, if not the part of the world, that stands the greatest potential for a truly transformative change in how we make thermal energy."

Niebling pointed out that little biomass, if any, is currently being collected from agricultural resources on a commercial scale in the Northeast. "Much of what we identified as potential sustainable feedstock supplies are largely theoretical at this point, but with the right signals in the market they could come on line within the next 25 years," he said.

The main emphasis of the vision is that 25 percent of all thermal energy used in the Northeast can economically and sustainably come from renewable resources by 2020, with three-quarters of that derived from biomass; the balance from solar thermal and geothermal. "It's a very ambitious goal but it's achievable, and it can be done within the available or reasonably available feedstocks we have in this region," Niebling said.

Now, participants involved in the development of the vision have a goal of pushing for local, state and federal policies based on the suggested parameters, and are starting a Northeast thermal working group. "If our policy is based on outcomes and not technology biases, making heat and combined heat and power from biomass rises very quickly to the top of the list by virtually any measure including efficiency, affordability, sustainability, impact on our dependence on foreign oil-especially in this region-emissions, and clearly GHG emissions," Niebling said. "If those are the measures upon which we based our policy, it will drive biomass to the most efficient uses."

Biomass Power Association President Bob Cleaves took the stage following Niebling to discuss the BPA's agenda, goals and policy priorities. He began by referencing the Manomet study, and the possibility of a permanent ban on new woody biomass-fired power plants as qualifiers under Massachusetts' RPS. "Does anyone in this room actually even entertain the notion that any RPS in Massachusetts or across the country can be met without biomass?" he asked attendees. "The answer is not a chance."

Legislative Goals

One objective of the BPA is to obtain a production tax credit for open-loop biomass plants, which Cleaves described as the "eclectic stepchild of renewables" when it comes to tax policy. "When Congress passed the natural gas act in 1992, they included a tax credit for closed-loop biomass, but by definition that is when feedstocks are grown specifically for the purpose of energy production," Cleaves said. "Since 1992, essentially there has been no commercial-scale or large-scale closed-loop facilities built, yet there were a lot of open loops built in the 1980s and '90s, which now get a tax credit."

When contemplating biomass tax policy one should think of two asset classes, Cleaves said. "The first is all the facilities currently running. Those facilities operate under a production tax credit that expired at the end of 2009, which we are seeking an extension of and may get for another year or two," he said. "The second class is new facilities; they get $10 per megawatt (MW) hour for a 10-year term. Wind and others get twice that and it's been a source of frustration for us."

A 30 percent investment tax credit (1603 program) is set to expire Dec. 31 and a number of efforts are underway to extend it, according to Cleaves. "The good thing is we have a lot of allies across the renewable energy sector that are fighting for 1603 with us," he said. "We think biomass is fundamentally different than other kinds of renewable energy, and from a tax standpoint, that's particularly true. If you produce cellulosic ethanol, there is no 'placed into service' date and you get a per-gallon tax credit. We think we should get a per MMBtu energy tax credit. There is a very unlevel playing field across all renewables."

While the Manomet study prompted assumptions that there are great schisms between the environmental community and the biomass community, Cleaves suggested that the idea is a complete disconnect from the truth. "For months we've been working with many of them on passing a federal renewable energy standard, and what's happening in Massachusetts right now and other states is critically important," he said. "State mandates right now are valuable, vulnerable, uncertain and intensely political."

Last, Cleaves encouraged industry members to provide comments on the Boiler MACT [Maximum Achievable Control Technology] ruling, as the public comment period is approaching. "This could really-in a not-so-subtle way-stop the biomass industry in its tracks," he said, adding that he is, however, confident in a favorable outcome of the Greenhouse Gas Tailoring Rule.

A Northeast Low-Carbon Fuel Standard

Director of the Northeast Regional New Fuels Alliance Andrew Schuyler, who followed Cleaves, explained some policies the organization has been working on, primarily the development of a Low Carbon Fuel Standard similar to California's. He explained that the LCFS which originated three years ago and aims to reduce the carbon footprint of transportation fuels in California by at least 10 percent by 2020.

Now, 11 Northeastern states have committed to a similar policy. "Our concern is that leaders of this movement have unequivocally stated they support the California policy, and that's a problem," Schuyler said. "It comes down to resource utilization. Energy doesn't come to us for free-it takes energy to make energy-and there may be indirect effects associated with that. The indirect effect that has been largely debated is whether something else, somewhere else, might be affected by producing and using resources to make a fuel. We're all aware of the indirect land-use controversy brewing in California, and the models used are highly subjective."

Schuyler and his organization are working to evaluate California's LCFS and actions the Northeast can take to avoid current conflicts. "California policy says that only biofuels have unintended effects or market-mediated effects, and the Air Resources Board has stated on the record that they don't believe petroleum has indirect effects," he said. "We know it does, on any commodity, if the price goes up. Almost everything in our lives is somehow linked to oil, and for them to say that it doesn't have indirect effects is, frankly, uniformed and irresponsible and we're trying to get that problem addressed. It's been a source of great confusion and frustration for the advanced biofuels industry, so we're trying to move forward and make this a more productive conversation than in California."

Schuyler also touched on what he described as asymmetrical carbon accounting in California's LCFS-particularly, the grandfathering in of new oil from eight countries/regions that might exceed 2006 baseline carbon allowances. "ARB has said for example, crude out of Angola in 2014 that is significantly higher than the 2006 baseline will still qualify as that. To us, that doesn't seem to be a serious way to address carbon in a performance-based standard, or to create markets for renewable energy technologies."

Northeast states such as New York and Maine that have agricultural industries have a lot to lose if inaccurate carbon accounting methods are used, Schuyler added. "If we're going to expand and change the game and move the system boundary to include indirect land use that's fine, let's have that conversation, but only when it's scientifically defensible," Schuyler said.

The plenary sessions wrapped up with the U.S. DOE Northeast Clean Energy Application Center Deputy Director Thomas Bourgeois, who discussed basic combined-heat-and-power systems, the benefits a well-designed, high-efficiency system can deliver, as well as what the center offers and how it works with developers to promote common interests.

The Northeast Biomass Conference & Expo continued with concurrent breakout panels under four region-specific tracks including electricity generation, industrial heat and power, biorefining and biomass power project development and finance.

Anna Austin and Lisa Gibson are Biomass Magazine associate editors. Reach them at or (701) 738-4968 and or (701) 738-4952.

Tour features district energy, wood pellets
The New England Wood Pellet plant in Jaffrey, N.H., is ringed by trees and its lot is piled high with bags of wood pellets, ready for sale to the company's residential customer base.

The site was one of two tour locations during Biomass Magazine's Northeast Biomass Conference & Expo held Aug. 4-6 in Boston. Nearly 40 tour participants observed facility operations and were shown how pellets are manufactured. The company has been making pellets for 19 years, according to Steve Walker, president and CEO, and designs and manufacturers much of its own equipment.

Participants saw trucks dump the raw wood onto massive piles of sawdust, wood chips, and hunks of other wood. The supply, 20 percent soft wood and the rest hard wood, comes from forestry, sawmills, chipping contractors and secondary manufacturers that make products such as furniture.

Some of the raw wood has to be dried, so before being pelletized, it is fed into a screener that takes out the big chunks, as well as the fine ones because they can blow up and cause fires, Walker said. Then, the wood pieces are pulverized to the size of a toothpick and dumped into a silo before being fed into the large, cylindrical, rotating dryer, which is powered by woody biomass. "This is exactly the same as a clothes dryer-a little bigger," Walker joked. The residence time for the wood in the dryer is 1.5 to 2 minutes, he added.

The dried wood, along with the wood that was dry enough to skip the drying process, is loaded into silos where it waits to be pelletized at temperatures up to 256 degrees Fahrenheit, Walker explained, picking up cooled pellets and passing them around. "They're pretty uncomfortable right when they first come out," he said.

The pellets are poured into bags on a conveyor belt, piled on pallets, wrapped in plastic and stored at the facility. The residential customer base is large, Walker said, but does fluctuate depending on oil prices. "The market here in the northeast has grown, but not nearly as fast as Europe," he said. There's an enormous overcapacity in the Northeast, he said and the market is much smaller than popularly perceived.

Tour guests were also granted access to the company's research and development facility, which it uses to design its own equipment, and research new designs.

Mount Wachusett Community College in northern Massachusetts was the other tour destination, a previously all-electric heated facility that now houses a state-of-the-art hydronic biomass-fired district heating system.

Powered by a Messersmith wood chip combustion boiler, the biomass system heats the college's entire campus, some 500,000 square feet of classrooms, libraries and laboratories, and has saved MWCC $300,000 in annual fuel costs since its installation in 2002.

MWCC Director of Maintenance and Mechanical Systems Bill Swift said three to five truckloads of hardwood chips are hauled to the plant per week to fuel the system. Though mill wood chips-which Swift described as unusable slabs of wood cut from the sides of debarked logs-are a more desirable fuel due to their consistency, the plant currently uses mostly chips derived from wood destined to be utilized as firewood, he said. "Since many sawmills have been closed in the state as a result of the lagging economy, mill chips aren't available to us."

Last year, the school paid about $54 per ton for mill chips and $58 per ton for the firewood chips, requiring about 1,400 tons of wood chips annually. Swift said he expected to pay the same next year, though he admitted concerns of eventual supply issues if multiple proposed projects in the state proceed, and if the economy does not improve.

-Anna Austin and Lisa Gibson