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The Sexy Fuel

Why isn’t biomass sexier in the U.S.? I’ve been told it’s the “sexy fuel” in Germany, and again I wonder: when will we catch up?
By Lisa Gibson | May 02, 2011

Why isn’t biomass sexier in the U.S.? I’ve been told it’s the “sexy fuel” in Germany, and again I wonder: when will we catch up?

Germany increased its number of pellet-fueled heating plants from 3,000 in the year 2000 to about 125,000 in 2009, mostly in residential and small-scale commercial applications. That’s an astonishing climb in nine short years and it’s not the only European country to exponentially increase its wood pellet use recently.

Andrea Stahl, commercial specialist with the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service in Germany, told me that the energy change encompasses much more than just feedstock, but also energy efficiency, changed mobility concepts and change of lifestyle. Her wording is so splendid that I won’t try to paraphrase: “Being resourceful no longer has the stigma of being uncool, funless, wearing self-knitted baggy clothes and munching dust-dry cereal.” Instead it’s quite the opposite. It’s a status symbol to own a smart car, buy eco-friendly foods and wear eco-friendly clothing. Fine. I get it. German hippies are cool.

So how do we make hippies cool in the U.S.? I realize that’s a gross stereotypical generalization, but all kidding aside, I think you see where I’m going with this. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again and again: we need incentives; reasons to produce and use pellets that come with meaningful benefits. And apparently, that needs to come hand in hand with an attitude adjustment. We have a ways to go, but it seems the wheels are beginning to turn, albeit painfully slowly.

For instance, Vermont is working on an incentive for residential pellet heat in lieu of oil to spur use of the local, clean alternative. In the face of biomass plant proposal cancellations, including one in Pownal, Vt., I have to admit I got a little giddy when I heard about this incentive and hope it catches on elsewhere in the country. And the USDA recently held an open solicitation for proposals to study the feasibility of providing crop insurance to producers of biomass feedstocks like corn stover, straw and woody biomass. Crop insurance for biomass? Yes please.

Alright, so wood pellets are slowly getting a little sexier in the U.S. and export opportunities up the quotient a bit more. Global pellet markets, specifically in Europe, are booming and expected to continue their climb to the top of the world’s renewables pedestal.

And you knew this was coming: Biomass Power & Thermal’s International Biomass Conference & Expo this week in St. Louis will of course touch on those global opportunities more than once. Most notable, though, is Wednesday’s plenary session “From Here to There and There to Here: Examining Global Project Development,” which features four speakers including the U.S. Industrial Pellet Association’s executive director, Seth Ginther. For more information on the conference, visit www.biomassconference.com. It’s important to note that the recent foul weather in the region will not affect the conference, and the airport is back to full operation following the beating it took from an enormous tornado.

So since we haven’t caught up to Germany in wood pellet use, I suppose the plus side is we have plenty of room to grow. And I’m über excited to see where that growth takes us.