Telling the Story of Biomass Thermal

By Kyle Gibeault and Joseph Seymour | October 26, 2010

One year ago, the Biomass Thermal Energy Council and allied biomass associations organized the first congressional briefing on biomass heating and cooling.  Numerous briefings have followed since then, signaling growing interest among politicians and their staffs on biomass thermal technologies and fuels. Broad policy goals and declarations such as the 25x’25 Wood-to-Energy Road Map and the Northeast Bold Vision for 2025 have further magnified the public and political perceptions of the good that embracing and incentivizing biomass thermal energy can accomplish. However tremendous these strides are—and indeed they are significant—there is still a worthy message that can be lost in the larger dialogue. It is a message that all biomass stakeholders understand, because it is their own.

As a relatively recent addition to BTEC (but not the renewable energy industry overall), we have made it a priority to engage those whose professional and personal success depends on seeing the biomass thermal industry flourish. These discussions have helped us see that there are two layers to the story of biomass thermal energy. The first, the high-level policy debate on incentives and regulations, is well-known. But many are unfamiliar with the other, equally important, part of the picture: the individuals and businesses working directly in the industry. 

A disconnect can sometimes occur between national biomass policy goals and breaking ground on projects. Rick Handley of Rick Handley & Associates understands this. In August, Handley shared his perspective on building successful biomass thermal projects. Previously, Handley had served in a regional leadership capacity on biomass issues in the Northeast, and, having witnessed the difficulties of longtime fossil fuel users transitioning to biomass heating, decided to lead from the bottom up.

Handley has partnered with projects to help them understand the permitting, labor and fuel procurement issues, acting as a trusted adviser during the entire process. Appliance tax credits and biomass supply incentives can increase the success of a biomass thermal project, but it often takes more than policy to turn the heat on: it requires champions like Handley to bring these pieces together.

Few places in America have more of a demand for heat than Alaska. Thomas Deerfield of Dalson Energy has assisted rural communities in this northernmost state, helping them transition from costly heating oil to biomass thermal energy. According to Deerfield, electricity in these areas can cost 30 to 50 cents per kilowatt hour, and barge delivered heating oil can cost $3 to $5 per gallon. As the winter progresses and waterways freeze, heating oil delivery becomes more logistically difficult and expensive. This is where biomass thermal energy is playing a role in bringing down costs and empowering rural areas. Working with boiler manufacturers, Deerfield has helped create self-contained boiler systems which are easily transported and maintained. In Washington, D.C., energy independence may not look like a steel shipping container, but it is helping Alaskan villages keep more of their financial resources.              

Broad policy statements and projects have begun to open the door to key decision makers, and these efforts must continue if biomass thermal issues are to maintain—and increase—their influence. Advocates must be mindful, too, of the personal story of biomass thermal energy. Government grants for feasibility studies and project financing do more than increase biomass thermal energy use. They harness the expertise of committed individuals to implement well-planned systems. Tax credits aren’t just numbers on an Excel spread sheet; they can be the difference between transitioning from fossil fuels now or never. BTEC will continue to lead and support biomass advocacy in Washington, D.C., and we call on others to join us. During these efforts, however, we must not forget that although overarching policy discussions win minds and ledgers, individual struggles and victories win hearts. For our message to be heard, both elements to the story are needed.

Authors: Kyle Gibeault
Deputy Director, Biomass Thermal Energy Council
Joseph Seymour
Program Associate, Biomass Thermal Energy Council
(202) 596-3974