What Does the Future Hold for U.S. Biomass Heating?

By Joseph Seymour | April 02, 2013

Anyone lucky enough to attend the World Sustainable Energy Days in Wels, Austria, has come close to achieving time travel. This annual biomass energy conference showcases the state of biomass heating that is years ahead of the general U.S. market, some companies notwithstanding.  I would not do the event justice by sharing its impressive attendance metrics and globally relevant speaker content.  What WSED does superbly is shine a bright and hot light on the path of advanced biomass thermal energy systems and what it takes to get there. 

Over the course of four days in this midsized Austrian city, I experienced what the US biomass thermal market could be.  Aisles upon aisles of biomass thermal vendors displayed equipment for bulk pellet fuel storage, wood chip handling, integration with solar thermal systems, and combusting agricultural fuels. These vendors had not just one solution at a particulate scale, but a suite of products for the broad spectrum of consumers. For example, the industry tour through the snowy country and urban landscapes profiled large, advanced commercial-scale, pellet-and-chip heating systems at a BMW service center, and a high-end architectural complex, respectively. These and numerous other installations are generations beyond the smoking outdoor wood boiler or "grandpa's wood stove,” and they simultaneously represent the future and the norm. This market, however, didn't develop in a vacuum.

The presence or omission of policy indeed drives and contributes to biomass sales, encouraging the use of certain products and services over others. While biomass fuels occupy a significant cost savings compared to propane and heating oil, incentives from aboard for power generation have the potential to impact the price of export and domestically used biomass fuels. Let me be clear: markets for biomass are good, and the biomass thermal needs more of them, for fuels, technologies, and a broader array of customers. Several presentations during WSED displayed what we all know, that export markets are in the driver’s seat of the U.S. biomass market, and European utilities have the ability to pay more for the fuel if they have to. Yes, the biomass thermal market is growing, too, but to achieve the 15 percent penetration of the heating market per the Austrian example, we need a paradigm shift, and we have a role to play in its creation. 

Europe's ambitious 2020 energy goals will likely undergo serious evaluation of the partner nations' renewable energy incentives, mandates, and treatment of biogenic emissions. Rising European debt, the occasional political instability, and seven more years means that the foreign market now will likely not be the market in 2020. Additional players will arrive from Asia, South America, and even Oceana, with pellet manufacturing facilities that may rival those on our shores. Again, energy policy is the driver and markets are simply responding.

The best, provocative conferences are those where one comes home with as many business cards as new questions. What will the global market hold for biomass thermal fuels and the adoption of advanced thermal technologies? How will our state and federal representatives respond to the importation of tens of billions of dollars of oil while cheaper and renewable fuel leaves our shores?

Why are we content to provide other nations with renewable energy but so unwilling to use more of it ourselves, creating a few thousand (or more) jobs in the process? Foreign and domestic companies are eager to invest, manufacture, and sell into the U.S. biomass heating market, but they view us cautiously, even skeptically. Even after sharing the string of recent state and federal policy, regulatory and professional achievements to promote biomass thermal fuels and, I could sense that the world wants to see bigger wins and certainty. To my new friends abroad, solutions are coming.

Author: Joseph Seymour
Executive Director, Biomass Thermal Energy Council
202-596-3974 ext. 302