The DOE Biomass Program: A New Focus?

By Charlie Niebling and John karakash | February 22, 2011

U.S. DOE Biomass Program officials tell us candidly that policy directives limit their activities to liquid transportation fuels development and electricity generation or combined heat and power. They claim not to be authorized to offer more than verbal support for advancement of other biomass energy technologies, regardless of the potential for energy self-reliance, cost reduction, local employment, climate change mitigation or wildfire danger reduction. 

The agency’s limited focus neglects other opportunities, notably the commercialization of the low-hanging fruit of sustainable and local biomass energy: advanced combustion of biomass materials for heat, service hot water and direct cooling for buildings and process heat for industry. This potential was described and highlighted in the article “Wood Energy in America” published March 2009 as the Policy Forum in Science. It would be valuable for the DOE to explain why biomass thermal is unsupported since no other renewable energy technology offers the short-term recovery of invested capital or long-term benefits including jobs and reduced dependence on imported fossil energy.

The DOE’s research and development focus is critical here. Recent research shows a need to overcome barriers of perception and systems integration to gain mainstream acceptance of the professionals who specify heating and cooling equipment1. The concept has support from energy design professionals; 78 percent of respondents to a recent survey said they would like more information on using wood energy to heat and cool commercial class buildings. Most were energy engineers—and members of the Association of Energy Engineers or the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers. 

Agency support is needed to both help the biomass thermal energy industry respond and adapt to concerns identified by the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) design engineer respondents.  

The logical placement for building heat and cooling applications for biomass is within the DOE’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy commercial buildings section alongside solar thermal, conservation and efficiency improvement. DOE officials stated specifically: To reach DOE target energy consumption and carbon emissions limits in renovated building stock by 2030, the U.S. will need more than just solar thermal, wind electric, photovoltaic, insulation and HVAC controls upgrades. Wood and agricultural residues combustion can help solve this problem and save money. But when asked about biomass applications, these officials had no answers because they were unaware that the technology had applicability to the sector.

Both wood and agricultural residues are, by definition, carbon-neutral, stored forms of solar energy. Although some refinements are needed in combustion process, controls and operating practices, that is all the more reason for DOE research and development support in importing and licensing demonstrated technologies or adapting them as needed by site in this country.
What can wood energy advocates do to help themselves?

• Do not say “I’m in biomass.” Be clear when telling people what you do. If you efficiently convert wood fuels into clean heat for buildings and process, use that as your tag line.   

• Join associations working to benefit your industry, such as BTEC, through which elected officials, regulators and reporters get a unified picture of what you need to grow and the value to them if you are successful.

• Work with energy design professionals by joining associations where you can meet, influence and learn from the energy design professionals trusted by developers and owners to specify heat and cooling equipment for buildings.

The Heating the Northeast with Renewable Biomass Conference in April ( will provide opportunities to discuss and begin moving ahead on these and other issues. Consider attending and urging participation by your elected officials and their staffs. They depend on you for information they do not get from the DOE. Perhaps we can help change that.

1Karakash and Richter, 2010. Report of Key Findings: Architects and Energy Professionals—The Missing Link in Wood Energy

Authors: Charlie Niebling
Chairman, Biomass Thermal Energy Council
John Karakash
Founder, Resource Professionals Group