Biomass Heating Recognition in Oil Dependent Northeast

Despite challenging market conditions, across the northeast U.S., making heat with biomass energy technologies continues to grow in attention, and gain interest and support among elected officials and policymakers.
By Charlie Niebling | March 13, 2017

Across the northeast U.S., making heat with biomass energy technologies continues to grow in attention, and gain interest and support among elected officials and policymakers.

This is the case despite very challenging market conditions: a perfect storm of warmer-than-average winters, low fossil heating fuel prices (for the fourth consecutive year), and a U.S./Canadian dollar exchange rate that favors strong competition from Canadian manufacturers of pellet fuels.

Policymakers and state energy agency officials are increasingly recognizing that greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction goals, and reducing the region’s historically high dependence on oil for heat, cannot be achieved without thoughtful policy support.

In December, Maine’s legislature commissioned a high-level biomass energy report that gave prominent attention to thermal energy, which my colleague Bill Bell has written about in Biomass Magazine. Among its top recommendations is a call to add renewable thermal to the Maine renewable portfolio standard (RPS). 

Mid-February, Rhode Island rolled out its Renewable Thermal Market Strategy. Rhode Island is not exactly known for its thriving forest product industry and biomass energy focus, but the report gave meaningful attention to advanced wood heating as a legitimate contributor to meeting the state’s ambitious long-term energy goals.

In New Hampshire, advocates soundly defeated an attempt by a fringe group of legislators to repeal the state’s RPS. Over 200 people, largely from the biomass electric and thermal communities, came out to attend the hearing on this misguided legislation. The strong showing only reaffirmed support for the policy that provides thermal renewable energy certificates (RECs) for biomass heating, and funding for boiler rebate programs.

Vermont’s comprehensive energy strategy has set a goal of achieving 35 percent of all thermal energy used in the state from biomass by 2030. That ambitious policy target has served to galvanize attention around development of a strategic plan for advanced wood heating.

In Massachusetts, a recent Supreme Judicial Court decision affirmed that aggressive GHG emission reduction targets are, in fact, legal mandates that the state cannot ignore. As a result, officials there have stepped up efforts to advance renewable thermal technologies, including pellets, chips, biogas and liquid biofuels. Massachusetts will soon become the second state with a comprehensive thermal renewable energy certificate incentive. 

In New York, the state Public Service Commission is exploring the feasibility of adding thermal technologies to those that qualify for RECs under the New York Generation Attribute Tracking System, starting with geothermal, but hopefully, biomass will soon be included.

All of this activity suggests that state officials do not anticipate that fossil heating fuel prices will stay at the current historically low levels. They understand that there is a real public interest in diversifying and expanding renewable heating options for homeowners, businesses and institutions. They recognize that heat energy, as more than a third of total energy consumption in America, deserves the same focused policy support as renewable electricity generation, and renewable transportation fuels. And, based on early signals from the Trump administration, they have concluded that we cannot look to the federal government for meaningful leadership in advancing renewable energy market development. States must assume this leadership role.

Without policy support and incentives, renewable heating technologies will languish in the current market conditions. With continued support, the market can sustain itself until the return of costlier fossil fuels. We all embrace a future where policy support is not necessary, and pure free market economics drive enlightened consumers to more sustainable energy choices. But until that day comes, we remain grateful to state energy policy makers—and to taxpayers and ratepayers that foot the bill—for the continued incentives and programs that support the advanced biomass heating industry’s growth.

Author: Charlie Niebling
Consultant and Partner
Innovative Natural Resource Solutions LLC