Passing on the Biomass Thermal Torch

By Charlie Niebling | January 30, 2013

This January, I stepped down as board chair of the Biomass Thermal Energy Council, a position I had held since the organization was founded in 2009. Doing so, I’ve been reflecting on how far our industry has come in this short time.

Making heat with biomass has been around for millennia; it’s nothing new. In fact, it’s so commonplace that we’ve often been overlooked in America’s renewable energy portfolio, despite the fact that heat from biomass represents the single most widely adopted renewable energy in the U.S. and the world. 

It’s only been in recent years that we have begun to be taken seriously, and the potential of this resource and technology to meet American energy independence and renewable energy goals fully appreciated. We still have a long way to go to gain the validation of our colleagues in the solar, wind, liquid biofuels and biomass electric sectors, however, but BTEC can take pride in the fact that advanced clean combustion of biomass fuels for heat is now widely understood to be a vital component of our nation’s long-term energy strategy.

We’ve managed to achieve some very important accomplishments on a shoestring budget (at least by Washington trade association standards). My list of BTEC’s top achievements since its founding in 2009 include that it:

• Grew from eight members to 110, with representation from all sectors.

• Secured White House Committee on Environmental Quality recognition of biomass heating in federal accounting for greenhouse gas emissions.

• Played a major role influencing U.S. EPA’s final adoption of a Boiler MACT rule with achievable emissions limits and wider use of work practice standards for commercial and industrial biomass boilers.

• Led industry recruitment of members for the Congressional Biomass Caucus, and have leveraged the group to hold numerous biomass thermal briefings.

• Introduced six separate bills over four years creating incentives for biomass thermal in the efficiency and investment tax credit sections of the federal code, including our two-tiered investment tax credit for commercial and industrial biomass heating, which will be reintroduced in the 113th Congress. 

• Led organizing of the inaugural Biomass Thermal DC Summit, holding over 40 meetings with federal agencies and members of Congress.

• Received $130,000 in grants from the USDA Forest Service to develop and coordinate dozens of outreach events and materials to help educate the public and practitioners about biomass heating. In all, we reached many thousands of participants.

• Grew the Northeast Biomass Heating Expo into the largest conference focused solely on biomass thermal in North America.

• Served as the go-to source and partner for the USDA as it looked to engage biomass stakeholders on new programs and grants.

• Successfully advocated for adding thermal output from biomass combined heat and power to a federal clean energy standard, and for funding and authorization of key Farm Bill programs that benefit biomass thermal.

We didn’t hit any homeruns in Washington, D.C., over the past four years, but this was during a time when nearly all progressive energy policy was hopelessly mired in partisan dysfunction. And frankly, BTEC has preferred to take a “small ball” approach, looking for incremental gains in legislative and regulatory policy to help the industry gain traction and develop new markets.

We certainly have much important work ahead, and I see numerous challenges on the immediate horizon:

• Can we build an even more effective trade organization by broadening our appeal and by consolidating our efforts with other like-minded organizations?

• Can we more effectively represent and advocate for our industry interests at the regional and state level?

• Working with other organizations, can we effectively overcome public anxiety and misinformation about sustainability and the impact of biomass on climate change?

• Can we solve technical and regulatory challenges that are holding our industry back from broader public acceptance?

• Can we finally gain the validation our sector deserves by full recognition in federal and state renewable energy policy, such as renewable portfolio standard programs and the federal tax code?

These are the cornerstones of BTEC’s work going forward, and our 2013 program plan reflects a major commitment of resources to each. I thank the forward-looking companies, organizations and public agencies that have supported our work over the past four years. I am confident we will look back on this time as a turning point for our industry, and that tremendous growth, opportunity and public support are just around the corner.

Author: Charlie Niebling
General Manager, New England Wood Pellet