Renewable Heating: Lessons from Europe

By | January 25, 2011

With a new majority, new committee assignments and, in many instances, new senators and representatives, change is once again in the air in Washington. As in the last session of Congress, energy policy will continue to be a focal point for our elected officials in the 112th Congress. These members of Congress have the opportunity to make significant progress on accelerating the deployment of renewable energy in the United States. Our advice to them: Take a close look at thermal energy.

Thermal energy, or heat, represents roughly one-third of total U.S. energy consumption. It is used daily by homes, businesses and industrial facilities across the country, most frequently for space heating, water heating or industrial processes. Using biomass for thermal energy is a highly efficient use of this renewable resource, but it is often forgotten in public policy. This is not unique to the U.S.; other countries have been in this position before:

“We focus on the fact that in spite of more than one-third of primary energy being used for heat there has been a lack of recognition of the role of renewable heat in policy delivery. The approach could be characterized as—no targets; no concerted policy; no strategy; and, limited support for development … Biomass is unique as the only widespread source of high-grade renewable heat and this inevitably becomes the key pillar of our report.”

That quote was from the executive summary of the 2005 report, “United Kingdom Biomass Task Force—Report to Government.” Since the publication of that report, the U.K. government has responded in many ways, including the creation of a successful capital grants scheme for biomass boilers and the pending launch of the Renewable Heat Incentive, a policy framework for providing incentive payments to generators of renewable heat.  Speaking at the rollout of the U.K. annual spending review in October, George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced that the RHI will commence in June 2011.

The federal state of Upper Austria may be the best example in the world of how strong, consistent public policy supportive of renewable heat can change energy consumption in a region. Christiane Egger, deputy manager of the Upper Austrian Renewable Energy Agency, discussed her state’s renewable energy strategy as the keynote speaker at last year’s Heating the Northeast with Renewable Biomass conference ( She spoke of the strategy’s three pillars: the carrot (grants and other incentives), the stick (legal and regulatory requirements), and the tambourine (outreach, education and training). It was a compelling presentation—and a compelling strategy. Through a combination of these measures, today more than 45 percent of Upper Austria’s heating needs are met with renewable sources of energy.

As we continue to deliberate over renewable energy policy in the U.S., it's easy to forget that other countries have been here before. The U.K. and Austria are just two examples of countries that are recognizing the potential of renewable heating. Germany, Belgium, Sweden, France and others have also implemented policies to incentivize the use of biomass heating systems. There is a lesson here. Our economy, politics and resource base may differ, but our counterparts in Europe have the right idea when it comes to renewable heating.

The 112th Congress and the Obama administration have the opportunity to put renewable heating in its rightful place in U.S. energy policy. BTEC will be working hard on a number of issues this year, including tax credits for biomass heating systems, biomass definition clarity and data-driven boiler emission limits from the U.S. EPA. I encourage you to keep updated via our website, but more importantly I ask that you do your own investigating on what’s happening abroad. Ideas can come from anywhere, and in many instances the energy issues we are tackling in the U.S. are not novel. When applicable, you can be certain that BTEC will incorporate the lessons from Europe into our thinking about policy and regulations.

Author: Kyle Gibeault
Deputy Director, Biomass Thermal Energy Council
(202) 596-3974