Look before leaping into biomass electricity

To the editor:

First, full disclosure: I am general manager for New England Wood Pellet in Jaffrey. I have an interest in seeing the use of pellet fuels grow in the northeastern United States.

Now why I write: New Hampshire will be making a colossal mistake by blithely endorsing the use of the North Country’s biomass resource to make electricity, rather than its much higher and better use – heat. 

The North Country is blessed with a valuable natural resource — its forests. If we use these forests sustainably they can provide for our economic and ecological well-being.

Much has been said about the role of our forests in meeting the energy needs of our state, region and country. But as the North Country Council’s recent wood supply study revealed, there are limited volumes of biomass available for energy.

This study estimated that North Country forests can sustainably yield approximately 600,000 green tons of biomass per year for new energy demand, given all the other demands on this wood resource and the biological limits of our forests.

The study begs the question: Clearly this is a finite resource, so what is the highest and best use of this resource? I submit that it IS NOT to turn it into electricity at efficiencies of about 20 to 25 percent, but rather to turn it into heat, at efficiencies of 70-90+ percent.

Much has also been said about the need for upgrades to the electric transmission capacity in the North Country. The cost of such upgrades sufficient to carry power from new generation to downstate and out-of-state consumers is now estimated to exceed $200 million.

What is the highest and best use of $200 million of taxpayer or ratepayer dollars? I believe it is to help the people and communities of the North Country tighten building envelopes and convert their heating needs from volatile imported oil, propane and natural gas to locally-produced clean-burning chip and pellet central heating systems.

Central heating, community-scale district heating and combined heat and power technology is advancing rapidly in Europe and elsewhere, and is available TODAY.

We have a choice: the 600,000 tons of biomass can either produce roughly 60 megawatts of electricity to satisfy folks from away, or enough heating fuels to meet the needs of about 50,000 North Country homes and businesses (about 150 megawatts of heat, given the much higher efficiencies!). Far more jobs would be created through a local heat economy and the harvesting and refining of biomass fuels, than by making electricity.

Tens of millions in annual heating fuel expenditures would circulate in your neighbor’s pocket, rather than bleed out-of-state to finance overseas petro-dictatorships.

I urge North Country policy leaders to take a hard look at this choice, and consider the enormous potential to heat the North Country with your own resources. More jobs through local economic development, energy security through energy independence, and a citizenry far more connected to the resource – and far more likely to insist on its responsible management. In my view, the choice is clear.

Charlie Niebling
New England Wood Pellet LLC

Categories: Cook on Concord