BTEC webinar examines biomass heat in the Northeast

By Anna Austin | October 20, 2011

U.S. energy policy to date can be summed up in two words—cheap energy, according to William Strauss, president of FutureMetrics and director of Maine Energy Systems. “That is what we’ve done for a long time, and that’s what the U.S. business model was built around,” he told participants in an Oct. 19 Biomass Thermal Energy Council webinar. “I don’t think there are many days left of that energy policy,” he said.

During his presentation, Strauss provided a high-level view of biomass thermal in the Northeast, as well as addressing concerns and opportunities. He pointed out that New Hampshire and Vermont are the two U.S. states most highly reliant on petroleum due to home heating oil demands, followed closely by Maine, yet these same states are among the most highly forested.

The high reliance on heating oil results in the loss of a huge amount of domestic jobs. “About $16.3 billion leaves the country each year because of petroleum reliance—you could say we’re exporting jobs to OPEC,” Strauss said. “In just Maine, about 87,000 jobs that could exist don’t because the money is exported.”

In the Northeast, a switch from distillate oil to biomass would create more than 670,000 jobs, according to Strauss. “Of course it won’t happen because to convert every home and business in the Northeast would annually require about 150 million tons [of biomass],” he said. “That’s a big number and out of the question. Figuring out what’s sustainable is an important starting point, an absolutely necessary condition—the sustainable yield of timberland, and how much cropland or pasture land could be used for energy crops.”

Overall, Strauss concluded, the Northeast has all the right stuff to emulate the European nations that already commonly use biomass.

To make that happen, webinar presenter Scott Nichols, president of Tarm USA, said he thinks  it’s time for biomass thermal to spend more time on pleasing customers and less time on pleasing policy makers. “We need to continue looking internally for growth—ways to improve ourselves, but also our markets,” he said. “I believe that if we build our markets, everything else will fall into place.”

Biomass is complicated, however, and has a lot more intricacies than oil, gas and coal, Nichols said. “There are so many little difficulties that we really need to just start working on it on a case-by-case basis, while continuing to do quality improvement,” he said. “One way we can do that is by staying involved—in time and money contributions—in our trade associations, because they are unbelievably good conduits for communication.”

Neil Veilleux, project consultant for Meister Consultants Group, said there is a lot of support for state renewable electricity production, but not for renewable heating. Currently only Wisconsin and Arizona include renewable heating in their renewable portfolio standards.

More states are beginning to implement some strategies, however, such as New Hampshire and its bulk-fed residential biomass boiler rebate program, Veilleux said. It provides a 30 percent rebate, or up to $6,000, for installations, though it is undersubscribed to, according to Veilleux. “That is in part because of efficiency requirements, but also because of communication and customer outreach,” he added. “Also, some people argue the incentive is too low. It will probably disappear sometime next year though unless the state comes up with additional funding.”

To change the landscape for renewable heating, Veilleux recommended that Northeast stakeholders establish targets, support development of a systems benefit charge on decentralized heating fuels, support development of a renewable thermal standard, and develop a renewable heating awareness campaign that will articulate the value of renewable heating across the customer base.

 He added that the Northeast is seeing some movement on comprehensive policy approaches. In Massachusetts, for example, the Renewable Heating Opportunities and Impacts Study, which will be completed by early next year, could set the stage for the state to create a comprehensive renewable heating program.

The webinar marks the 10th in a 14-part series hosted by BTEC, supported by the Northeast Biomass Thermal Working Group and funded in part by the U.S. Forest Service's Wood Education and Resource Center. To view a recording, visit www.biomassthermal.orgbiom.