Getting Greener

New York's Greene County aims to be a state leader in biomass utilization.
By | January 04, 2011

A study initiated by Greene County, N.Y., to evaluate its biomass resources and potential has found that the county could lead the state in biomass fuel production, given its vast amount of underutilized resources, location and transportation infrastructure. The study concluded that to get the ball rolling, however, public support must be built through multiple steps.

Dan Conable of study co-conductor Cato Analytics LLC says familiarizing local businesses, residential consumers and the logging industry with firewood as a source of heat, in lieu of fuel oil, would be a good starting point.
In Greene County roughly 70 percent of residences and small commercial/institutional heating comes from fuel oil, Conable says. The county has less than 50,000 people and spends about $2 million dollars monthly on imported fuel oil in the winter, he says. “For New York state, the heating oil bill comes to more than $5 billion per year.”

Since many homes and businesses are heated with fuel oil, there is a real opportunity for wood heat in Greene County—as is the case with most of the Northeast—even though petroleum prices have been depressed by the economic crisis of the past few years. Although the Btu value of wood is competitive with fuel oil, without any form of subsidy, a large barrier remains—the relatively high up-front cost of an efficient pellet stove or two-stage wood furnace, Conable says. These units have better than 75 percent thermal efficiency and acceptable emissions levels.

 To help with up-front costs, the report recommends including biomass energy in the state’s Property Assessed Clean Energy program to set the stage for a pilot program. PACE eliminates the up-front cost for energy improvements by allowing property owners to pay for the improvements over 15 to 20 years through an increase in their annual property taxes.

Forest sustainability and harvest practices are also addressed in the Greene County study. “One unique aspect of Cato Analytics’ analysis was that it moved away from the net growth approach to modeling forest biomass availability,” Conable says. “We call that the ‘haircut approach,’— as long as you do not cut it faster than it is growing, you’ll never grow bald. The problem with that approach, as far as forests are concerned, is that it assumes that the only threat to forest health is over-cutting. In fact, the big threats to good forest management are invasive species and the pattern of harvesting known in this part of the world as ‛high-grading.’”

Generations of over-harvesting the best hardwood species, including removal of trees at sub-optimal diameters, has left Greene County with degraded forests dominated by low-value trees. “In Greene County, business as usual, which is continued high-grading, might give us about 50,000 tons of low-grade wood chips harvested each year, assuming adequate local markets,” Conable says.

If landowners had the incentive to regenerate their forests by removing a significant percentage of undesirable tree species, then coming back for a pre-commercial thinning 15 or 20 years later, there would be two important results, from Conable’s perspective. “For about 40 years, we would quadruple the supply of available biomass, assuming regeneration cutting of 5 percent of the county’s forest every year,” he says. “After 40 years, we’d be looking at a forest not unlike the hardwood forests of Europe, producing a higher percentage of prime hardwood logs than we’ve been able to harvest in this country for several generations, and a much lower percentage of biomass. That would be fine, given the likelihood that genetic improvements will make cropped biomass a lower-cost source of lignin and cellulose than natural forest, very likely within the next 15 years.”