Escaping Washington: A Look at Regional Efforts to Grow Biomass Thermal

By Kyle Gibeault | May 23, 2011

There’s a reason people call Washington, D.C., a fishbowl. In this town, it’s easy to forget about the world going on outside our little tank. I recently traveled outside of our nation’s capital to learn more about what’s happening in biomass thermal in different parts of the country. What did I find? There’s a lot of activity at the state and regional level.

In April, I flew to New Hampshire to attend the third annual Heating the Northeast with Renewable Biomass conference. Before the conference, I went on a day-long industry tour that really brought home the opportunities we have here in the U.S. We visited Masenic High, a school in New Ipswich, N.H., which recently made the switch from heating oil to wood pellets and has seen its fuel costs drop by roughly two-thirds.  We also stopped by Nubanusit Neighborhood and Farm, a cohousing community in Peterborough, N.H. This neighborhood’s district heating system utilizes locally produced biomass fuel instead of imported fossil fuels to provide heat and hot water. Their six biomass boilers provide heat for every home in the community.

These visits help bring to life what we all know: Advanced biomass heating systems are already producing real benefits at operating projects throughout the U.S. As made clear a few days later at the HeatNE conference by Christiane Egger of the Upper Austria Renewable Energy Agency and Herbert Ortner of ÖkoFEN, this technology is really gaining ground in parts of Europe.

BTEC has been working hard to tell this story at the national level. But after seeing the interest and energy for regional activities at HeatNE, I began to think that maybe part of the answer for this industry also lies at the local level.

Our organization was formed to bring all of the varying regional interests under one tent to develop a common message and unified voice for biomass thermal in Washington. We have succeeded in that respect. Every day BTEC is working on behalf of its members to advocate for federal incentives and regulations that would help grow the industry. These efforts are absolutely vital—they are the potential home runs that could transform the marketplace. But base hits can get you on the scoreboard too. And there are smaller victories to be had at the state and regional level.

Groundwork is now being laid at the state and regional level for bigger wins down the road. As evidence, look no further than the 400-plus attendees at the HeatNE conference in April or the recent meeting in Ladysmith, Wis., to discuss a similar undertaking in the Midwest. Another example: the Northeast Biomass Thermal Working Group, an informal regional coalition of biomass thermal advocates, recently attracted more than 350 industry people to sign a letter going to political leaders in the Northeast.
Jonathan Kozol, an educator and  nonfiction writer known for his books on public education in the U.S., once wrote: “Pick battles big enough to matter, but small enough to win.” There is an unprecedented level of support, interest, and coordination happening across the country for biomass thermal. It’s time to take advantage. What’s possible in the Northeast isn’t necessarily going to be true for the Midwest, the Southeast, or any other part of the country. The political environment, the economy, and the appetite for renewable energy can differ wildly from state to state. Each situation requires a unique approach. 

Our efforts on the federal level are essential, but there are also a lot of great things happening outside of Washington. In addition to supporting our national platform, we need your help in advancing the industry in your state and region. If you are from the Northeast, visit and join their mailing list. If you’re in the Midwest, contact me to learn more about developments in that region. And if you’re from another part of the U.S., let’s talk and figure out how we can build momentum for biomass thermal in your state. There’s a lot of work to be done, but it’s great to see so many passionate advocates getting involved. I invite you to join us in helping build this growing industry in D.C. and beyond.

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