Progress on the Biomass Thermal Front

By Charlie Niebling | August 23, 2011

When the Biomass Thermal Energy Council was founded in 2009, federal and state policy makers barely understood the potential of making heat from biomass to meet our nation’s lofty energy goals. 

Early forays by BTEC leaders into congressional offices were met with blank stares. State energy and climate plans overlooked this energy pathway. If it wasn’t about making electricity or a liquid transportation fuel, it did not merit consideration in policy platforms such as state renewable portfolio standards (RPS) or federal renewable fuel standards.

After years of persistence by BTEC and activists, this is changing. Every day I see indications that heating and combined heat and power (CHP) with biomass is increasingly being viewed as a wise component of America’s broader renewable energy strategy. 

Take the Northeast, for example. In the past six months, biomass heating has moved forward on several fronts:

• In Massachusetts, the Mass Clean Energy Center recently funded a comprehensive analysis of renewable heating options. This study is under way and includes biomass thermal. The expectation is that the findings and conclusions will form the basis of new policies and incentives.

• In Massachusetts, activist efforts by the Northeast Biomass Thermal Working Group led the state legislature’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy to issue a critique of RPS changes calling for a strong look at policy favoring high-efficiency biomass thermal.

• In Vermont, Gov. Peter Shumlin enthusiastically endorsed using state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative funds to support a rebate program for high-efficiency biomass heating appliances. That program is now moving forward.

• In Vermont, activists responding to a NEBTWG action alert sent letters to state officials developing a Comprehensive Energy Plan to incorporate stronger consideration of biomass thermal.

• In New York, the New York State Energy Research and Development Agency announced a funding opportunity that will provide grant support for high-efficiency, low-emission commercial-scale biomass heating technology. Details will become available in September. NYSERDA also announced that it will issue a request for proposals to conduct a statewide biomass heating roadmap strategic planning effort; details will come out in October.

• In Pennsylvania, industry activists have come together to revitalize the Pennsylvania Biomass Energy Association with a more focused mission “To promote and support the use of sustainable biomass feedstocks for heat and/or CHP applications.” More than 50 member companies attended an initial strategic planning meeting.

• In Maine, industry activists with the Maine Pellet Fuels Association led an effort to change state regulations to allow solid fuel combustion to utilize the same chimney flue as fossil fuel combustion, a major regulatory barrier to widespread use of high-efficiency biomass in homes.

• In New Hampshire, legislation to provide renewable energy certificates for thermal output from biomass CHP is moving forward. It was also the only state to use stimulus funds to finance a residential rebate for high-efficiency biomass boilers. And the state’s Public Utilities Commission is evaluating how to include thermal renewables in a revision of the state’s RPS, with recommendations due in the fall.

• Finally, in September NEBTWG issued a “call to action” to Northeast governors and congressional delegation calling for inclusion of biomass thermal in incentive programs, state energy plans and the federal tax code. Representatives of nearly 400 businesses, agencies and organizations signed the letter.

Individually, these actions represent small but incremental evidence that biomass thermal is gaining momentum. Collectively, they demonstrate an unstoppable movement toward recognition that biomass thermal represents a hugely overlooked renewable resource. 

Further indication can be found in the formation of the Midwest Biomass Thermal Working Group, with a conference being planned in the north-central states for 2012.  And, with support from the USDA Forest Service Wood Education Resource Center, BTEC hosted seven webinars with nearly 2,000 participants on a range of topics related to biomass thermal.

The biomass thermal community is not waiting for Washington to hand down progressive energy policy.  Rather, we are making progress one community, one state and one region at a time—through innovative private/public partnerships. I have confidence that these efforts will build strength, and this most renewable resource—biomass—will be restored to its once prominent place in meeting our nation’s thermal energy needs.

Author: Charlie Niebling
Chairman, Biomass Thermal Energy Council