BTEC webinar examines biomass heat in the U.S. West

By Anna Austin | November 11, 2011

One thing that makes the U.S. West’s biomass market potential different than other regions of the country is the prominence of federal government-managed land, according to Chad Davis, Sustainable Northwest program manager.

Oregon and Idaho have particularly high percentages of federally owned land, slightly greater than 50 percent. “The national average is about 30 percent, so that affects our opportunities in terms of resources,” said Davis, who was one of three panelists who discussed the potential, challenges and developments of biomass heat in the West during a Nov. 10 Biomass Thermal Energy Council webinar, “Regional Developments of Biomass Energy-Western Region.” “So that really affects our opportunities in terms of resources.”

While forest restoration efforts can make a difference in what’s available, those efforts aren’t the same across the board, according to Davis. Growth rates of forested lands are different throughout the West, for example, the forests on the eastern side of the Oregon Cascades don’t see the same growth rates as those on the western side.

In Oregon alone, using a 20-year restoration effort scenario, about 1 million bone dry tons of biomass per year has been identified for potential use, and another half-million tons from logging efforts, Davis said. If 25 percent of the fuel oil used in Oregon was substituted with biomass heat, it would equate to 1.4 million households and create a demand of 3 million tons of pellets per year. Right now, Oregon produces about a quarter of a million tons of pellets per year.

Adding together the feedstock value dollars and energy savings, that would add about $140 million to the Oregon economy.

Following Davis, Marcus Kauffman, an Oregon Department of Forestry biomass resource specialist, spoke about some approaches that his organization has taken to develop the biomass thermal market in Oregon by relying mostly on education and outreach work and some market analysis. 

Currently, 11 public facilities are heated with biomass, Kauffman said. The public sector is beginning to show more interest, but what they are really seeking the most is cost savings, followed by energy independence, he added.  

Innovation isn’t attractive to most of them. “They’re looking for proven technologies that are commercially available,” Kauffman said. “Rural public schools aren’t interested in testing new technologies. They can’t afford to take on more debt, and as most of them are downsizing staff, can’t afford additional maintenance requirements [for their heating systems].” 

 Kauffman said the current focus is a project to educate end-users about biomass heat. “We developed five basic case studies and conducted community tours of new facilities,” he said. “Those considering want to see, touch, feel and talk about biomass heating first.”

Angela Farr, USDA Forest Service regional biomass utilization coordinator for regions 1 and 4, said one challenge of biomass heating projects is lowering the cost. “One of our challenges in the West is that we have small, rural and dispersed populations and facilities,” she said. “For example, in Montana, the total population of the state is less than 1 million people. Everything gets more challenging when you scale down—smaller systems cost more proportionally and smaller equipment tends to be less forgiving with fuel quality and variations in fuel quality.”

 It can be hard to make small projects work economically, especially in an area that doesn’t have supply infrastructure, she added. While the cost of biomass is higher up-front than natural gas or fuel oil, the unit cost of heat is where the payback comes in. “The more heat you use, the quicker you’ll see that payback,” Farr said.  

The full webinar can be accessed on the BTEC website at