Conference explores biomass alternatives

When talking about the oldest of all energy technologies as it evolves for the modern world, it’s OK to use terms such as “biomass” and “thermal inertia” or even “return on investment” – but please, its proponents beg, don’t say “tree-hugger.”“That image is still out there – we need to lose that image,” said Steven Walker, chief executive of New England Wood Pellet in Jaffrey, the region’s highest-profile biomass firm. “This is about business, generating wealth and building an economy around energy – not just saving the world.”From the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Christiane Egger, a government official in Austria who champions wood burning as a part of the alternative energy picture, agrees.“This is an industry. This is not for people in strange clothes doing funny things,” she told several hundred people crowded into the second annual Heating the Northeast With Renewable Biomass conference, held recently at the Radisson Hotel Manchester.Even in the midst of a recession, the biomass industry has reason to laugh, thanks largely to a decades-long move from burning cordwood to burning fuels made out of pressed, dried sawdust or other types of processed wood.“You don’t take oil or gas and throw it into a random box – you refine it,” Walker said. “We refine wood into pellets and use an appliance.”Such “biomass” fuel doesn’t have to be made from wood; corncobs, grass or any type of grown matter will do. But in New Hampshire, the second most heavily forested state behind Maine, wood is the obvious choice.The uniform size, shape and quality of pellets mean their use can be automated, with pellets brought to homes and businesses like other fuels, such as oil.This has led to the convenience of pellet stoves, for homes
and large pellet-fed or wood-chip-fed boilers for commercial and industrial plants.That, in turn, has provided incentive to develop systems that avoid most of the pollution that older wood-burning systems emitted.Even power production has gotten into the act: Far more electricity is produced in New Hampshire by wood-burning power plants than by hilltop wind turbines.

Cost an issueThis doesn’t mean wood is going to leap back into its 19th-century role as the leading fuel for heating homes and businesses; oil and natural gas are likely to remain dominant. But a series of technical improvements, pushed by environmental desire to wean the United States from fossil fuels and particularly imported oil, have given it new life.The big issue, as is so often the case, is money. New burner and boiler technologies for efficient wood burning are expensive, partly because they’re still being developed and partly because relatively few are being made and sold.“It’s cost, pure cost; that’s what drives the decision” whether to switch, said Mark Froling, president of Froling Construction and Industrial Services, a Peterborough-based consultant who has been dealing with construction projects for 23 years and in renewables for a decade. “It’s incentive driven.”These incentives, mostly federal but also some state money funneled through programs such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, are designed to help companies and residents switch from fossil fuels.There are other concerns, including the ability of New England’s forests, which have rebounded from being mostly clear-cut, to provide fuel and remain healthy.Wood-burning power also has a long legacy of air pollution, particularly involving soot and other small particles; officials said modern pollution controls have solved this issue, but not everybody is convinced.The fact that incentives are required demonstrates that the transformation of biomass energy still has a way to go.

‘Vision’ reportAt the end of the Manchester conference, five groups representing various aspects of the biomass industry in the Northeast issued “A Vision for 2025.”It noted that heating and hot water used 39 percent of all energy consumed in New England and New York in 2007, and that 96 percent of this energy was provided by “non-renewable and high-carbon fossil fuels.”It urged a goal of providing 25 percent of the region’s heating and hot water with “forest and farm resources transformed into heat” by 2025, replacing what it says are 1.14 billion gallons of heating oil annually with biomass. Among other things, it would involve converting 1.38 million houses to pellet boilers and other thermal biomass.The report details the amount of “biofeedstock” available in New England forests and claims there is more than enough to do it with without harming lumber and paper mills, and other users of what is sometimes called the “wood basket.”This effort should go “hand in hand with aggressive efforts to improve building energy efficiency, thus reducing overall energy consumption,” it said, and could not only reduce the amount of oil that we have to buy, but create more logging and wood-industry jobs and related jobs in servicing and installing biomass installations.It proposes the creation of a six-state working group, involving industry, government and nonprofits, to urge state and regional support for this idea through tax incentives, loan programs, reference in climate action plans and a “public education campaign” to overcome wood’s tree-hugger image.It’s a lot to expect, but the conference got a boost of encouragement from Egger, a director of the energy division for the state of Upper Austria, an industrial state in Austria that has almost exactly the same population as New Hampshire.More than a decade of government and industry push has led that state, which has much less forest cover than northern New England, to generate a third of its total energy use from alternative sources, half of which are wood. Among other things, she said, virtually all new homes are being heated by wood, generally pellet boilers.“Why did this small state in a small country put such a burden on itself? … Purely economic reasons are sufficient to justify the transition,” she said. “Price fluctuation (of oil) alone is a very good reason to get out of oil dependency.”What this means, she said, is that if New Hampshire and its neighbors want to use more biomass, they eventually can.“What you’re doing is not an isolated … initiative, but is part of something bigger,” she said. “You have to make a commitment and you have to stick to it.” — DAVID BROOKS/THE TELEGRAPH