A Wood Heat State of Mind

Wood heat is common in New York homes, but there's a need for higher-efficiency, lower-emitting devices, and ongoing support for new residential and commercial installations.
By Anna Simet | March 06, 2018

Commonly associated with rocketing skyscrapers and the Manhattan Skyline, bustling city life, the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building and many other tourist attractions and landmarks, there is much more to New York than its metropolitan area. In fact, the vast majority is in stark contrast, comprised of vast, picturesque stretches of rural land scattered with farms, rivers, mountains, lakes and forestland. Of its approximate 30 million total acres, 63 percent, or 18.9 million acres, is forested, much of which is privately owned and managed for wood or pulp. 

Although between 2005 and 2012, New York experienced a 60 percent increase in the number of homes using wood as the primary heating fuel source, reliance on fuel oil is still heavy.

New York state uses about 1.8 billion gallons of No. 2 heating oil (distillate) each year, according to the U.S. EIA, much of it for residential heating. Only California exceeds New York in the total number of homes using wood as the primary heating fuel, according to NYSERDA’s New York State Wood Heat Report. And while wood heat application is increasing, with approximately 1 million wood-burning devices used for primary, secondary or recreational home heating—a trend prevalent not just in New York, but across the entire Northeast region in recent years—only about 2 percent, or about 143,350, are mainly heated with wood, compared to Vermont at 15.1 percent, Maine at 12 percent and New Hampshire at about 7.8 percent. An additional 500,000 New York homes use wood for supplemental heat.

 But despite the fact that New York is the second-largest market for residential wood-burning devices in the country—and still growing—the existing market is prominently high-emitting, low-efficiency devices, most of which are unregulated. And, according to the NYSERDA report, while the overall use of wood for heating purposes is minimal compared to other fuels used for heating, its impact on the state’s air quality is significant, contributing 90-plus percent of the PM2.5 emissions.

In a move to capitalize on New York’s wood resources and support industry business opportunities and jobs, while increasing renewable energy use and focusing on climate mitigation and air quality improvement efforts, Gov. Andrew Cuomo first announced the $27 million Renewable Heat NY program in his 2014 State of the State address, and shortly thereafter implemented the program by funding 18 woody biomass projects across the state. It focuses on incentivizing modern, high-efficiency wood heat, and reducing the use of No. 2 heating oil in homes and businesses.

Unlike the residential sector, use of wood for industrial heating isn’t incredibly common, and is mostly found in facilities associated with the wood products industry. A database developed by NYSERDA estimates that New York’s current inventory of industrial and commercial boilers fueled by wood includes 62 sawmills, 13 schools, seven pellet mills, three industrial users, two paper mills, two commercial buildings, two greenhouses, and two  hospitals. The use of wood pellets appears to be higher in neighboring states where access to natural gas is limited, but use of biomass in commercial applications is still higher in New York than in other states, including Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.

Renewable Heat NY has been working to assist in the commercial wood heat buildout, and currently has an open opportunity for funding, with relatively strict and specific requirements. For small commercial advanced cordwood with thermal storage installations, it provides 25 percent of installed cost up to $5,000 per unit, with an additional $5,000 for documented recycling –removal and destruction—of old outdoor or indoor wood boiler, or $2,500 for recycling whole house wood furnace.

For small pellet boiler installations with thermal storage (less than 300 MBtu/hour (88 kW), it provides 45 percent of installed costs, up to $36,000 based on system size, with the same incentives for documented recycling or destruction of old outdoor and indoor wood boilers or wood furnaces. For large commercial pellet boilers and tandem pellet boilers with thermal storage (more than 300 MBtu/hour), it provides 40 percent of the total installed cost, or a $200,000 maximum, and 45 percent of the total installed cost, or $270,000 maximum, respectively.

Essex County’s Ray Brook is one example of an ongoing commercial project being supported by Renewable Heat NY, and construction is underway on a new, pellet-fired district heating system.

Biomass in Ray Brook
“NYPA wanted to demonstrate high-efficiency, low-emission pellet boilers, and NYSERDA has gone through a rigorous testing and approval process to help promote this technology in the Adirondacks, and across New York State,” says Randy Solomon, director of energy efficiency at the New York Power Authority. NYSERDA is contributing a $300,000 grant toward the project, which is being funded in part by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, with construction financing by NYPA.

At the Ray Brook Biomass Project, a containerized building will house three boilers—one rated at 350 MBtu/hour, and two at 700 MBtu/hour—that will supplement heating requirements at the three agency buildings at the Ray Brook complex—the Adirondack Park Agency, the Department of Environmental Conservation and the state police, according to Solomon.

The three-boiler system will produce hot water according to building demands. “Each of the three buildings served by this system will have controls on their hot water system that interface with the new biomass plant,” Solomon explains. “As demand for heat rises, the biomass boilers will be utilized. Hot water flows and temperature (Btu) will be measured for each building, and they will share in the cost of pellets accordingly. Research with solid fuel boilers has shown that multiple boiler systems result in more efficient overall systems.  A common pitfall among pellet boilers is selecting a single, oversized unit that will operate inefficiently, and emit larger quantities of air pollutants.”

In this case, Solomon adds, three boilers were necessary by this particular manufacturer to meet heating loads. 

Constructed next to the approximate 660-square-foot building will be a 35-foot-tall pellet silo to hold fuel. “One large silo will be used to increase the amount of the fuel storage without greatly increasing the footprint,” Solomon says. “This will also allow for the most flexibility when purchasing pellets, which are moved from the silo to an intermediate hopper, or day bin, inside the boiler plant.  Each boiler has a dedicated flexible auger that is terminated inside the day bin, and will operate according to that specific boiler’s firing rate.”

A wood pellet supplier for the system has not yet been named, but the state intends to solicit competitive pellet pricing from a provider that serves the area, says Solomon.

Ceremonial groundbreaking for the project was in August. “Most of the preparations inside the buildings have been made, and underground piping has been run,” Solomon says. He adds that working through the winter weather has been challenging—on top of working in and around a busy complex that includes three state agencies—and those issues, coupled with boiler lead time, the project will be finished for use during the next heating season. Once up and running, it’s estimated the system will save the DEC about $50,000 in energy costs every year.

To fully convey the benefits of the system to the public, a public education space will be included in construction.  “We’ll use this system, which is located in the Adirondack Park, to demonstrate and serve as a showcase example of new innovative biomass technology,” Solomon says. “Visitors will be able to look into the containerized biomass boiler plant, and see it working.”

Another example of a new, high-efficiency Renewable Heat NY-supported installation is in North Hudson, New York, which came online in late 2017. The fully automated, self-feeding wood pellet boiler provides the town highway garage with heat via a hot water distribution system, replacing an outdoor cordwood wood boiler that was no longer operational. Town Supervisor Ron Moore says alternatives were looked at, but it was decided that the pellet system was the best option. “We get to use wood for heat, and we will support jobs and the forest products industry through that decision, without requiring our town staff to spend time managing a cordwood boiler,” he says.

 The installation in North Hudson was done by Ehrhart Energy, an NYSERDA-approved contractor. Only contractors that have demonstrated technical competence in the design/installation of Renewable Heat NY eligible technologies are able to perform installations under the Renewable Heat NY program. As for what that demonstrating competence entails, installers must have at least two years of relevant experience, have completed manufacturer’s training for the boiler brand they are installing, and at least one person from the company  must have successfully completed Renewable Heat NY biomass training.

NYSERDA did not grant a request for an interview with Biomass Magazine, but provided some answers to written questions. To date, it reported, Renewable Heat NY has funded over 1,000 projects—including categories of residential, small and large commercial and technical support, and said there has been consistent interest and growth in the program. The biggest challenge in meeting program criteria has been understanding the proper design and installation of qualifying technologies, according to NYSERDA, which pointed to its educational and technical support to installers and end-users to help with this issue.

But while the program has seen a degree of success, it has been vastly underutilized. Joe Short, vice president of the Northern Forest Center and board member of the New York Bioenergy Association, says the organizations have some ideas on why that is, and is working to help correct it.

Money on the Table
The Northern Forest Center, well known for its work in advancing adoption of automated wood heat across Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York, believes in the industry as a strategy that drives important market demand for forest resources while keeping dollars in the local economy and creating jobs. Not surprisingly, the NFC has been involved in Renewable Heat NY for a long while. “We were pretty excited and involved in the creation of the program years ago,” Short says. “As for many renewables, we view public incentives as an important part of getting the sector off the ground. However, I don’t think the program has yet achieved its objectives.”

Despite the $9 million in state funding available, it isn’t being used up quickly. “Last summer, we observed that despite all that money on the table, only 38 boilers were installed statewide,” Short says. “That’s in comparison to other states like Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, where many hundreds have been installed in a similar timeframe.”

As to why, Short says the NFC’s primary observation has been that the program has been challenging for installers to use. “Challenging to navigate through everything they have to do—a lot of work up front to meet NYSERDA requirements before they have the guarantee of a sale from their customer,” Short says. “And the success of these types of program really depends on the engagement of the installer—it has not been able to gain that in New York.”

The second reason is that the value of the incentive—in many cases, according to Short—is almost fully offset by the costs of specific equipment that NYSERDA requires the homeowner or facility to install. “It hasn’t been effective as a financial incentive as it has been in other states,” he says.

The NFC has been communicating with NYSERDA on what kind of changes could be made to the program, to increase its use. “We had a good conversation with NYSERDA a couple of months ago and laid out our thoughts on how the program could be improved—in particular, pointing out how similar incentives have worked in other states,” Short says. “What we heard was that they were aware of the challenges and taking a look at the program and how it could function better, so we’re hopeful that’s what they come back with. New York has invested a significant amount of money here, and it’s important that we make use of it. We’re ready, as I know many other partners in New York are, to grow adoption of the program, if we can address some of the challenges.”

Author: Anna Simet
Editor, Biomass Magazine