Nature’s Call for Biomass Standards

A lack of respected national and international standards for biomass production and utilization can only hamper the biomass industry’s growth and standing.
By Ben Bell-Walker | September 15, 2015

A recent op-ed in the journal Nature starts out stating that “[t]he bioeconomy is rising up the political agenda.” While the piece discusses international policy issues, the U.S. political agenda is also increasingly bioeconomy-focused. A perfect example is a letter, signed by 154 members of the House of Representatives in August, urging federal agencies to recognize the carbon neutrality of biomass energy.  While “biomass use is expected to continue to rise to 2030 and imports to Europe are estimated to triple by 2020,” a key point that authors of the Nature article make is:

“There is no consensus on what 'sustainable' means. Biomass assessment is a patchwork of voluntary standards and regulations. With many schemes comes a lack of comparability. Confusion leads to mistrust and protectionism, international disputes and barriers, slow investment and slower growth.”

The op-ed calls for an international body to resolve biomass-related disputes, or for a global biomass sustainability framework. Whether or not one supports these proposals, a lack of respected national and international standards for biomass production and utilization can only hamper the biomass industry’s growth and standing. Motivated to change this, the Biomass Thermal Energy Council is currently drafting the first thermal efficiency test method designed for commercial-sized boilers, which use all kinds of solid biomass as a fuel stock, including pellets, chips, briquettes and cordwood.

One motivation for this project was concern from industry and regulatory stakeholders about incentive legislation at both the state and the national level, such as the Biomass Thermal Utilization Act of 2015. The BTU Act is designed to incentivize high-efficiency biomass systems, and in order to capture the strengths of biomass systems, combined electrical and thermal efficiency are counted as a basis for credits. However, there is no standardized thermal efficiency measure for commercial-sized biomass systems to distinguish between high-efficiency, low-emissions equipment and less satisfactory performers. The project has gained substantial support from partners such as the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, the West Penn Power Sustainable Energy Fund, and the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources. BTEC will hold a series of regional scoping meetings to gather public feedback on the standard this fall and spring of 2016.

A strength of the BTEC efficiency test procedure is its planned validation in a testing laboratory environment, after which it will be published as a voluntary industry standard and made publicly available through BTEC. The process won’t stop there, however, as BTEC will then continue working to gain formal acceptance of the protocol by an ANSI-accredited standards organization. Furthermore, BTEC will promote the efficiency testing procedure outside the biomass industry to the wider HVAC industry, government officials and testing agencies, as well the general public. (The project’s full overview and timeline are available on BTEC’s website.) It will take time and lot of cat wrangling to harmonize the international “patchwork of voluntary standards and regulations” the biomass industry faces today. That said, creating a national American test method to show that biomass boilers perform like they should is a pretty good start.

Author: Ben Bell-Walker
Technical Affairs Director, Biomass Thermal Energy Council
202-596-3974 x 304
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