Are We Ready for the 100 Percent Renewable Energy Movement?

Many in the biomass heating movement bemoan warm winters, low fossil fuel prices and the slow pace of conversions to biomass heat. But systems to adopt renewable heating are being put in place, and though we could be, we aren't a part of them.
By John Ackerly | July 11, 2017

Many in the biomass heating movement bemoan warm winters, low fossil fuel prices and the slow pace of conversions to biomass heating systems. But systems to adopt renewable heating are being put in place, and while we could be a part of them, we are not.

Scores of cities across the U.S. and Canada have already pledged to go 100 percent renewable. Even more will be announcing plans in the next year or two.  Some cities are only focusing on 100 percent renewable electricity, but many are adopting a two-stage approach. The first stage addresses electricity needs, while the second stage addresses heating.

Take Portland, Oregon; Hanover, New Hampshire; and East Hampton, New York. Portland is shooting for 100 percent renewable electricity by 2035, and plans to tackle heating from 2035 to 2050. Hanover is planning for 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030, and 100 percent renewable heating by 2050. East Hampton is moving even faster: 100 percent renewable electricity by 2020, and 100 percent renewable heating by 2030. Much of this heating will be fueled by electricity, but chip and pellet systems could also be in demand.

A parallel trend is the Zero Net Energy movement. To be considered a ZNE building, a house, building or campus cannot use more energy than the renewable energy it generates. There is no one accepted definition of ZNE, so cities, campuses and communities have some leeway in how they define it. A strict definition says biomass has to be grown and harvested on-site, but other definitions could include biomass harvested from within 30 miles, for example.  After all, the sun isn’t on-site, either, but the energy from it is produced on-site. 

The point is that aggressive renewable energy strategies need to address heating, and if the biomass community is not at the table, we may be left out of policies and definitions. The Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association has been at the table, but it also represents gas appliances and aligns with the gas industry for those appliances, while also representing wood and pellet appliances.

The Biomass Thermal Energy Council is a natural leader for this type of advocacy, as they represent industry players that heat buildings and campuses. This advocacy is not cheap and could easily require a full-time person to engage with all the organizations and agencies involved in these movements, but this would be an investment that would pay dividends over the next 10 to 20 years. 

The renewable electricity movement is taking off because laws require utilities to sell or produce a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable sources.  The mandates typically increase until a target year, such as 20 percent renewables by 2020, or 25 percent renewables by 2025. Legislatures can do this because state-level public service commissions have authority over public and private utilities. But why don’t we regulate the heating grid the same way we regulate the electric grid? 

Piped gas is just like electricity in many respects, and it’s regulated in many of the same ways, but are there any gas companies required to ensure that 20 percent of their Btu are renewable by 2020? If gas companies had to install some percentage of their business as geothermal, solar thermal or biomass thermal, the renewable thermal sector would develop quickly, just as renewable electricity has. Gas companies could install the systems themselves, just like utilities can install their own wind turbines or solar farms, or buy renewable energy credits from companies that build and operate them. 

During these Trump years, federal policy and funding of renewables will dwindle, but that is making some states, cities and campuses even more motivated to push forward. Renewable heating is part of the equation, but are we at the table?

Author: John Ackerly
President, Alliance for Green Heat