RHNY offers comprehensive approach to wood heat expansion

By Mark Watson | August 15, 2016

Mark Watson, program manager at New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, submitted the following to Biomass Magazine and Pellet Mill Magazine in response to Charlie Niebling’s column, titled “When Good Intentions Become Counterproductive,” which appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of Pellet Mill Magazine. 

In 2014, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority launched the $27 million Renewable Heat New York program, which built upon NYSERDA’s biomass R&D program and leveraged NYSERDA’s decades of experience administering energy efficiency and renewable energy deployment programs. The goal of RHNY is to create a self-sustaining wood heat industry that can deliver high efficiency and clean biomass heating options for New Yorkers. It takes a multifaceted approach to support the wood heat industry through a combination of incentives, training, technical assistance and R&D. RHNY is the most comprehensive wood heat program in the northeast, and the only one that provides incentives for both residential and commercial advanced cordwood and pellet boilers, as well as pellet stoves.

For many years prior to the RHNY launch, NYSERDA partnered with and supported manufacturers, fuel providers, system designers, installers, universities, national laboratories, and federal and state agencies to remove technical and market barriers to cleaner, more efficient wood heat. This knowledge informed RHNY program development and has helped NYSERDA address marketplace realities.

NYSERDA’s efforts have been key to ensuring that better performing wood heat technologies could successfully enter the marketplace. For example, NYSERDA worked with the industry and Brookhaven National Laboratory to develop a new test method that accurately measured advanced boiler performance, helping these new boilers become eligible for sale in the United States. Additionally, the European test method for pellet boilers was approved for use in the RHNY program. As a result, the U.S. EPA determined that all pellet boilers approved by RHNY are approved for use anywhere in the United States. This not only saved the advanced pellet boiler industry testing costs, but it has expanded consumer choice with the availability of 47 qualified pellet boilers here. 

The requirements for the RHNY program are quite similar to other states; however, RHNY includes additional value components, such as free design review and post-installation inspections by NYSERDA for residential boiler systems. In fact, installers have told NYSERDA they appreciate how the extra oversight has improved their projects, as well as their understanding of wood heat systems. Once an installer has submitted three approved system designs, the review requirement is waived. NYSERDA also requires and provides training for installers.

RHNY includes safeguards to optimize consumer safety and value. For example, NYSERDA currently requires outdoor storage of bulk pellets because of the potential for dangerous off-gassing of carbon monoxide from pellets stored inside buildings. This critical consumer safety requirement is fully supported by the New York State Department of Health. And NYSERDA hasn’t just acknowledged the problem, but is working on the solution: NYSERDA-funded research recently identified the process that causes carbon monoxide off-gassing, as well as a potentially effective means of preventing it. We have recently completed a successful laboratory-based pilot of this process with Clarkson University, and are optimistic that industrial-scale applications will soon provide necessary consumer protection for pellets purchased in bulk or in bags.

Last winter was a difficult winter for the biomass heating industry with extremely warm weather and an unprecedented drop in heating oil prices, which made the economics of wood heat significantly less favorable in New York and elsewhere. Other states that had experienced widespread interest in biomass heat programs before the fossil fuel price drop are now experiencing similar challenges to uptake as we are seeing here in New York. 

Fortunately, RHNY provides a long-term commitment to wood heat, and NYSERDA continues to work side-by-side with partners from all sectors of the wood heat industry. We are fully aware of the realities of the market—that’s why we have dedicated more support for the development of high-efficiency, low- emitting wood heat than any other state.  “Business as usual” approaches to wood heat cannot successfully compete with today’s heating technologies using other fuels. Advanced, cleaner, more efficient systems are critical to advancing the wood heat industry and our overall clean energy agenda in New York.

New York State developed RHNY through an informed approach with a long-term sustainability view that was strongly influenced by objectives to reduce costs and protect environmental quality. NYSERDA is making progress on meeting these objectives by helping to automate manufacturing in New York, funding the purchase of bulk pellet delivery trucks, developing fair test methods for additional wood heat technologies, supporting cost-effective wood chip drying technologies and optimizing thermal storage technologies, to name a few current efforts.

As with all of NYSERDA’s many successful deployment programs, we recognize that changing market dynamics may require program adjustments, and we will accomplish these by working side-by-side with the wood heat industry and other stakeholders. We look forward to continuing these partnerships to advance a sustainable and energy-efficient wood heat industry.

More information on wood heat is available from the 2016 New York State Wood Heat Report: An Energy, Environmental, and Market Assessment (http://www.nyserda.ny.gov/-/media/Files/Publications/Research/Biomass-Solar-Wind/15-26-NYS-Wood-Heat-Report.pdf). This report provides a framework to guide development of a viable wood heating industry and advance energy and environmental goals. The report evaluates critical technical, environmental, public health, economic, and policy issues related to development of a sustainable industry in New York State. It assesses potential wood feedstocks, their availability, combustion technologies, and the implications of feedstock and technology choices. The report then identifies critical actions to create a pathway that stimulates the necessary research, investments, and policies to build appropriate capacity, maintains feedstock supplies, and ensures public health and environmental protection.