A Salute to Biomass Combined Heat and Power

By Joseph Seymour and Natasha Wad | September 20, 2011

It is well known that the USDA’s Forest Service and Rural Development agencies have started to recognize and promote biomass thermal installations and fuel production. Additionally, in 2009, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs set off on its mission to reduce its energy footprint, and in the process became yet another government advocate for biomass thermal. 

A combination of comprehensive energy legislation, executive order, and internal agency mandates requires the VA to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 30 percent by fiscal year 2020. With the bulk of its emissions originating from on-site energy production and purchased electricity, the VA sought a blend of aggressive energy efficiency improvements and increased renewably fueled combined heat and power (CHP) production to reach its goal. High thermal loads and a requirement for baseload energy made biomass-fueled CHP an ideal candidate to help the VA surpass its sustainability goals. CHP systems produce two types of energy, thermal and electric, from one fuel source and typically boast energy efficiency profiles north of 70 percent (greater than approximately 30 percent for standalone electric).

Throughout 2010 and into 2011, the VA’s Green Management Program approved the implementation of up to 17 biomass CHP facilities and 38 feasibility studies at its health care centers nationwide. The VA places modern veterans’ care atop its operating priorities, and by embracing biomass CHP challenges those who equate biomass thermal with images of antiquated, smoky wood combustion units. In the VA’s perspective, biomass CHP not only supports energy-intensive cutting-edge health care, but also complements the VA’s responsibility to minimize its environmental and energy-related impacts.

From Maine to Michigan, biomass CHP facilities are strategically positioning the VA’s reduction and reliance on conventional fossil fuels and increased utilization of locally sourced biomass fuels. For example, at the Chillicothe VA Medical Center in Chillicothe, Ohio, the under-construction 450-kilowatt, biomass-fueled capacity CHP system is projected to power all of the electricity and steam (heat) requirements for the facility. The biomass project, seen as the first of its kind for the VA, has an expected annual savings of $896,000. Another biomass CHP project, the Veterans Affairs Medical Hospital in Canandaigua, N.Y., expects to reduce its facility’s heating and cooling bills by 50 percent. Numerous other VA sites have explored the feasibility of similar installations, and, pending final contract and design partners, will add to the nation’s 500-plus biomass operational CHP plants.

The significance of another major federal agency validating biomass thermal technologies cannot be understated. The VA’s sustainability goals and long-term operation’s investments underscore the value of efficient, biomass-fueled thermal and CHP applications. Even more so is the espoused use from a health care provider. Flagship projects, whether at the county, state or federal level, can inspire confidence in these proven advanced thermal technologies and help leverage additional installations.

To borrow from Christiane Egger, deputy director of the Upper Austrian Renewable Energy Agency, the VA’s leadership on renewable thermal will hopefully serve as an added “tambourine” to the growing biomass band, leading other adopters, private and public alike, toward biomass heating.

Promising VA movement on renewable biomass thermal alone won’t advance the market for biomass thermal technologies and fuels, although it is certainly a welcome sign. If our industry desires to contribute to sustainability, clean energy and economic development goals, it must work to tailor incentives that level the energy playing field and reduce high initial capital costs. Making these investments in a strained fiscal environment demands careful consideration. The VA weighed these concerns, and it took the smart step toward biomass thermal. And it will not be the last.   

For more information on the VA’s Green Management Program, visit www.green.va.gov.

Author: Joseph Seymour
Acting Executive Director, Biomass Thermal Energy Council
Natasha Wad
Clean Energy Fellow, Biomass Thermal Energy Council