BTEC webinar explores biomass heating environments in Europe

By Lisa Gibson | June 15, 2011

U.S. biomass incentives do little for heating applications, unlike many European countries that extensively use wood for heat or are implementing strategies to increase that use. To point out those successful programs, the Biomass Thermal Energy Council held a Webinar June 15 titled “Brits, Brussels and Biomass: The European Path Towards Renewable Heating.”

The webinar focused on learning by example and highlighted some countries that have shown a history of innovation in the biomass heating sector. Not surprisingly, Austria was singled out and given a dedicated presentation by Christiane Egger, deputy director of the Upper Austrian Renewable Energy Agency. Seemingly light years ahead of everyone else, Austria has crafted an economically beneficial framework for woody biomass heat.

“Upper Austria has pioneered biomass heating in the past two decades and achieved global leadership [in small-scale systems],” Egger said. The state has produced about 25 percent of all biomass boilers installed in all of the European Union and the biomass heating sector employs more than 4,000 workers in Austria, she cited. The main policy instruments the country has used to get to its leadership position include standards, financial incentives, advice and awareness campaigns, support for biomass heat equipment manufacturers and renewable heating mandates.

The U.K. seems to be following in Austria’s footsteps, with its new Renewable Heating Incentive. Andrej Miller, RHI policy manager for the U.K. Department of Energy and Climate Change, talked about the program, being sure to mention that it’s the first of its kind. Much like in the U.S., biomass heating was left out of incentives in the U.K. up until the development of the Renewable Energy Directive and the RHI. The RHI program offers long-term support to compensate for capital and operating costs, as well as additional barrier and financial costs, for technologies classed as renewable under the Renewable Energy Directive. Support will be distributed in the form of tariffs based on technology and size.

The EU has three main renewable targets to reach by 2020: reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent of 1990 levels; improve efficiency by 20 percent; and increase renewable energy use by 20 percent. Emphasizing those goals, Günter Hörmandinger, environment counselor at the EU Delegation to the U.S., displayed graphs during the webinar that showed renewable energy’s upward growth path in the EU. Electricity is first, followed by heating. While the Renewable Energy Directive for the first time includes biomass heating applications, administrative barriers such as lengthy procedures and a lack of experience of civil servants, stand in the way. Reforms are required, he said.

In the U.S., more than 11,000 commercial- and industrial-scale biomass boilers for heating are in use, as well as more than 500 combined-heat-and-power plants, according to Webinar moderator Emanuel Wagner, BTEC’s program coordinator outreach, education and external affairs. The key movers of U.S. policy are tax incentives and tax credits, both for the most part, exclusive of biomass heat, according to Joseph Seymour, BTEC’s program  coordinator for policy and government affairs. A new white paper on a Federal Clean Energy Standard, however, addresses the importance of thermal energy from biomass and could help the U.S. implement programs allowing it to catch up to thermal-thinking European nations.