The rise of wood and pellet heat in the U.S.

By Rona Johnson | July 19, 2011

The Biomass Thermal Energy Council and the Alliance for Green Heat co-hosted a webinar July 19 on the future of wood and pellet heat in the U.S., where presenters identified barriers to its growth and provided advice for policymakers on how to overcome them.

Charlie Niebling, chairman of the BTEC board of directors, kicked of the webinar with his presentation, Federal Policy Landscapes in the U.S. and Europe for Thermal Biomass.

“There’s no question that the role of government in influencing the advance of renewable energy technologies is profound and significant,” Niebling said. “I think nowhere is that truer, or perhaps we see no better example of that, than the very aggressive, proactive role that European governments have played in promoting renewable energy, and in particular in promoting the use of biomass, particularly wood, in thermal applications.”

Although the U.S. has made some progress the Europeans have clearly outpaced us.

“The Europeans are probably ahead of us by about 10 to 12 years with respect to their recognition of the role of biomass in all forms of energy applications, but particularly in thermal applications,” he said. “A good example of that was the adoption six months ago of the U.K. Renewable Heat Incentive, which really placed the reduction of demand for fossil energy for heating applications with renewable energy technologies at the forefront of their renewable energy policy.”

Niebling also pointed out that the European governments aren’t shy about using tax policy to influence the relative or comparative economic viability of renewable energy, and that renewable mandates are widespread throughout the country.

 “We’ve seen some real progress in the U.S., in particular in respect to biomass thermal,” he said. “But the fact is, at the federal level renewable energy policy has been focused almost entirely on electricity generation and more recently with the Bush administration and the Obama administration on transportation fuels and not on thermal. This is despite the fact that thermal represents about one-third or more of total energy consumption in America and in states like New Hampshire it’s more like 40 to 42 percent.”

After highlighting the differences in the consumption of renewable energy in Europe and the U.S., he offered some suggestions about what the U.S. could do to boost the use of biomass resources to displace fossil energy in heating applications.

“If federal energy policy were based on efficiency,” Niebling said. “If the federal energy policy was based on carbon benefit per unit cost. If the cost-effective displacement of imported fossil energy were a major cornerstone of our energy policy in this country, thermal energy from wood would rank very high by virtually any metric you apply against any recognized public policy goal displacing fossil energy with the efficient, clean combustion of biomass, and particularly wood as the most abundant biomass resource available right now, is the most cost effective way to achieve those goals.

On the federal level , Niebling said, they hope to reintroduce a couple of bills that would benefit biomass thermal, but because of all the focus on the debt ceiling in Congress , he expects to see more movement on the state level.

“In the short term, I’d say the opportunity is at the state level working with the framework of existing policies,” he said. For example, in New Hampshire they are trying to modify the renewable portfolio standard to include thermal energy.

Jon Strimling, CEO of American Biomass, started out his presentation, Scaling Up Wood Pellet Heat: A Guide to Growing the American Market, referencing the Heating the Northeast with Renewable Biomass 2025 Vision, calling for 25 percent of all thermal energy requirements in the Northeast be met with renewable energy resources by 2025. That vision would result in an increase in the use of biomass from 4.16 percent in 2010 to 18.5 percent in 2025, and a reduction in the use of natural gas and heating oil.

Strimling said he believes the biggest barrier to achieving this goal is ignorance and misperception. He commended organizations like the BTEC and the Alliance for Green Heat for their work spreading awareness about the benefits of thermal heating.

He also stressed the need to allay concerns about emissions and the sustainable use of forest biomass, and to make consumers aware of the benefits of wood and pellet heat.

“There are substantial savings that consumers can realize by using wood pellets in home heating in the Northeast,” he said. “Today, it’s about a $628 in savings this year versus heating oil.”

He also pointed out that consumers can realize savings by using space or zone heating, which is typically how heating with wood pellets works today, and that the country can achieve substantial reductions in carbon dioxide emissions by displacing fossil fuel use in heating.

John Ackerly, president of the Alliance for Green Heat, agreed with Strimling and emphasized using wood for heat not only displaces fossil fuels and creates jobs but more importantly it helps ordinary families meet utility bills, reduces airborne particulates and it’s a more efficient use of taxpayer dollars to reduce fossil fuels.

Ackerly sees the need for states to incentivize only the cleanest appliances and to provide incentives for lower income families to heat with wood and pellets.

He also talked about the importance and the opportunity for states to implement programs to exchange old stoves with new appliances, which is the case in Oregon, where the final presenter was from.

 Rachel Sakata of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality talked what Oregon is doing to manage wood heating emission in her presentation, Strategies to Reduce Particulates from Wood Heating Appliances.

Oregon has a woodstove changeout program that requires the removal of uncertified stoves upon the sale of a home and prohibits the sale and installation of uncertified stoves. Further, uncertified stoves must be destroyed or rendered inoperable.

“Uncertified wood heating appliances are very polluting,” she said. “We have a number of particulate matter nonattainment areas in Oregon so a lot of our strategies are based on reducing emissions from wood heating appliances.”

Sakata said there are incentives out there on the state and federal level to help with the purchase of new stoves. In fact, the DEQ secured $2 million in American Reinvestment and Recovery Act stimulus funding from the Oregon Department of Energy for woodstove changeout.  They also have a low-income program where those who qualify get their entire cost covered and a partial rebate is available for those who don’t qualify. The Oregon Department of Energy issues a tax credit for the purchase of a premium efficiency heating device of up to $300.

Joseph Seymour, acting executive director of the BTEC, said that more than 250 people from local, state and federal governments, industry and nonprofit centers were registered for the event, which was paid for in part by the Wood Education and Resource Center.