A Unified Renewable Heating and Cooling Front

The state policy environment in the Northeast has become the epicenter of support for the idea of a unified coalition to support renewable thermal energy.
By Ben Bell-Walker and Jarrod Petrohovich | June 26, 2016

To supporters of biomass heating and cooling, it sounds like a broken record when we talk about how thermal energy makes up roughly 40 percent of our nation’s energy consumption. Yet, it still does not get anywhere near the amount of attention or funding that electricity and transportation fuels receive. Consequently, the Biomass Thermal Energy Council enthusiastically applauded the first-ever inclusion of thermal energy in federal department renewable energy goals in the recently passed, though not-yet-reconciled House and Senate energy bills.

The neglect of the biomass industry also applies to its thermal brethren in the solar and geothermal renewable energy industries. While uniting these thermal sectors seems like a logical and laudable goal, this concentrated and coordinated action has not lived up to its potential. Nevertheless, there are signs that change may be in the air. An early example of this was the passage of the Renewable Thermal Bill in August 2014, opening up the Massachusetts Alternative Portfolio Standard to heating and cooling systems that use any of those renewable energy sources, plus others like bio-oils. A robust coalition, including the Solar Energy Industries Association, the Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas, the Biomass Thermal Energy Council and the New England Geothermal Professional Association worked together to push the bill across the finish line.

The state policy environment in the Northeast has become the epicenter of support for the idea of a unified coalition to support renewable thermal energy. New Hampshire has pioneered the use of a full-on carve-out for thermal renewable energy credits, beautifully dubbed “T-RECs,” for sustainably produced heating and cooling. A number of other states, including Maryland, Colorado and Indiana, have flirted with the idea or have more limited support for renewable thermal. And, in the past year or so, two large northeastern states, Massachusetts and frenemy New York, have unveiled, respectively, the $30 million Clean Heating and Cooling Program and the $28 million Renewable Heat New York program. The Massachusetts Clean Energy Center Clean Heating and Cooling program covers solar hot water plus air- and ground-source heat pumps, as well as biomass pellet (and soon, woodchip) heating systems. New York state’s program does not incentive any woodchip systems, but it does include pellet and advanced cordwood boilers installed with water thermal storage systems. 

Anyone with knowledge of statistics knows that three or four points are not indicative of a trend, but these actions will shine more light on thermal. To keep this momentum going, we argue for more collaboration between renewable thermal interests through avenues such as renewable energy conferences, as well as legislative and regulatory participation at state and federal levels (thermal energy tax credits could certainly help).  But these actions are still not enough. We also need further standardization. Given that the U.S. and United Kingdom are some of the very few countries in the world that measure heat and electricity differently (the watt for electricity and British thermal unit for heat), the progress of the proposed U.S. national heat metering accuracy standard is crucial to this effort, to which the EPA says:

“…manufacturers would no longer compete in the market on accuracy, but instead compete on product cost and other features […] standardization would instill confidence in parties who exchange payments for useful energy delivery and could support greater confidence in the deployment of renewable heating and cooling technologies through innovative third-party financial structures such as energy purchase contracts. This benefit also extends to several states that have included thermal energy as an eligible resource under state renewable portfolio standard policies and states that have implemented performance-based incentives to develop renewable thermal markets.”

Appliance standards and certifications are also a key aspect of this market. The relatively well-established rating structure for different components and combinations of solar thermal systems, under the leadership of the Solar Rating and Certification Corporation, is an example of this. On the biomass side, since 2014, BTEC has been actively engaged in developing materials in support of an efficiency test protocol for commercial boilers. This will create a single standard that provides all of the benefits described above, and would provide a key metric for programs like New York’s or MassCEC’s, which now require efficiency measurements but either rely on European test methods or test methods that were developed for smaller residential systems.

We are seeing the positive beginnings of a trend, but it will be up to the biomass thermal industry to continue to find strategic ways to partner with other thermal interests to make renewable heating and cooling the no-brainer, household concept that it truly should be.

Coauthors: Ben Bell-Walker
Technical Affairs Manager, BTEC
202- 596-3974

Jarrod Petrohovich
Technical and Policy and Government Affairs Fellow, BTEC
202- 596-3974