Heating the Midwest details goals

By Anna Austin | November 22, 2011

Biomass thermal has great potential in the Midwest, and stakeholders representing various industries across the board are collaborating to gain a better understanding of the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.

During a Nov. 21 Biomass Thermal Energy Council webinar, presenters explained in detail the efforts being made to encourage and increase biomass heat in the Midwest, one of which is formation of the working group Heating the Midwest

Greg Mast, vice president of the Agriculture & Biomass Business Cluster at the BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota, explained the overall structure of the steering committee, which consists of 13 people representing the industry, academic, government, nonprofit and university sectors. It is organized into five action teams—demographics, biomass resources, biomass combustion technology, public policy, and benefits and consequences.

While the working group believes there is huge opportunity for biomass heat in the Midwest—including job generation and enhancement of rural economic development—the price needs to be competitive, on a regional basis, with the price of fossil fuel, Mast pointed out. “Especially natural gas, which is predominant here in the Midwest and relatively cheap right now.”

According to U.S. Census data, from 2000 to 2010, the number of houses heated with biomass in Wisconsin saw a large increase, according to Mast. “There are now over 106,000 housing units heated primarily by wood, an 88 percent increase from 2000 to 2010, a larger increase than any other heating fuel type.”

Mast said there are around 652,000 residential housing units heated with fossil fuels in the Midwest that have the potential to switch to biomass, and that the region has a higher than average percentage of households heated with natural gas. “Residents in the Midwest consume about 941 trillion Btu per year for not quite 10 million homes,” Mast said. “If we were to adopt a similar version of the Northeast Biomass Thermal Working Group’s goal—if 25 percent of all heat came from renewables and of that 25 percent, 75 percent came from biomass—we’d be looking at somewhere north of 9 million tons of pellets consumed per year, an additional $1.2 billion dollars per year injected into our regional economy and a $4.3 billion reduction in nonrenewable fossil fuels.

Michael Curci, business development manager of Indeck Energy and leader of Heating the Midwest’s demographics action team, pointed out that according to census data, fossil heating fuel consumption across the Midwest has gone down over the past 10 years. Electricity has gone up, but wood usage has remained relatively unchanged. “We’re trying to determine what drives fuel change at residences,” Curci said.

One goal of the demographics action team is to determine which counties in the Midwest are best suited for biomass and do not have as much natural gas available as other counties, according to Curci. Other goals include identifying the total energy consumption of the region—whether  it be electricity, transportation fuels or thermal heating—determining the quantity of fossil fuels currently used and where they are coming from, identifying how much of consumed heating fuel is produced in the Midwest region verses outside and how many jobs could be created within the region by using more fuel from within, and how biomass compares with other renewables in the Midwest as a heating source.

Becky Philipp, project development director for the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute and leader of the Heating the Midwest biomass resources action team, said the group is using multiple studies already available in order to compile data in a combined report that will be representative of the Midwest biomass’s resources. “Our future goal is to look at ways to expand regional biomass industry infrastructure, by building on the work of others,” Philipp said.

All types of biomass will be considered, according to Philipp, including dedicated energy crops, woody biomass and agricultural residue. “It’s our first investigation and we don’t want to leave anything out,” she said. “We’re looking at a large area, and different feedstocks might have a comparative advantage in certain locations or markets verses others. Technological innovation will change the value of certain biomass feedstocks in the future as well.”

The report will contain technical and physical characteristic data of each biomass source. “Work on the project is well underway, and we’re very excited about how it’s progressing,” she said. “We anticipate completion of a preliminary draft in January 2012, with a roll-out of the final report at the Heating the Midwest conference in April 2012,” she said.

Pamela Porter, midwest director for the Biomass Energy Resource Center and co-chair of Heating the Midwest’s policy development and advocacy team, said the goal of the team is to advance biomass thermal heating energy in Midwest. The team has developed a policy recommendation and action plan draft that will be submitted to the Heating the Midwest steering committee, then to the broader public to solicit feedback and input. 

The team’s work is based on four core principles, according to Porter, one of which is that state and national energy policy must include thermal energy to be comprehensive. “There’s a large focus on electrical generation and transportation fuels, but very little on heating and thermal energy,” she said.

The second principle is that biomass is renewable and versatile, but not limitless. “It should be used strategically for its highest and best value,” Porter said. The remaining two principles are that Midwest biomass energy facilities must be appropriately scaled to be sustainable, and that biomass can provide significant economic development opportunities—especially in rural, Midwest communities— through distributed energy generation, she said.

A recording of the webinar will be available soon at www.biomassthermal.org.