A New Perspective

Keynote speaker Carlton Owen said the traditional hurdles aren’t the big ones
By Luke Geiver | April 25, 2012

The 2012 Northeast Biomass Heating Expo in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., March 21-23 featured a keynote address that shed new light on the challenges facing the industry. Carlton Owen, president and CEO of the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, told the crowd that typical problems like project finance or feedstock availability, are simply “local weather events.” Those events, he said, are not the real challenges facing the industry.

Instead, Owen referenced three areas that present the biggest challenges for biomass thermal. The first is that it has too many voices, he said. A veteran of the forest industry, Owen explained that the biomass sector is doing exactly what the traditional forest sector has done. The forest industry has roughly 440 associations that represent it, and while they are all important, he said many are too small and underfunded.

The second challenge, as he explained, is that many developers are letting the perfect stand in the way of the good. As an example, Owen pointed to a biomass energy project his endowment is funding in Georgia. Opponents of the $60 million project say it is not as efficient as it could be. But he argues that the project is still accomplishing a great task in the county: creating jobs. “We need to grow the industry,” he added.

The last challenge Owen discussed is the focus on what and how, not why. Biomass companies need to align themselves and their message to customers with the values of their audience. That message, he added, should be about forest health and sustainability, and job retention.
In addition to his sentiments regarding the real challenges facing the industry, Owen said woody biomass projects need to be right-sized to the resource and to the community in which they will operate.

Along with Owen’s address, the opening morning of the Northeast Biomass Heating Expo, hosted by 24 different biomass-based entities and organizations from both the public and private sectors, included remarks from Frank Murray, president and CEO of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. He referred to the organization as the mini DOE.

Murray reminded the audience that although the Northeast is unable to heat with natural gas in most places, and that one-third of the homes are heated with heating oil, there are no quick fixes or silver bullets to provide alternatives. The challenges Murray pointed out for biomass-based thermal applications include competition with low-sulfur diesel heating oil. He added, however, that biomass heating systems will be a part of New York’s future heating supply.

Through a partnership between NYSERDA and the U.S. EPA, Murray said his team are developing a test method for staged combustion thermal storage units. He said the project is emphatically supported by wood pellet boiler manufacturers, and several have already supplied their boilers for testing. NYSERDA is also developing a pneumatic pellet delivery truck that Murray said will help craft a best practices guideline for pellet-based heating systems.

—Luke Geiver