Fanning the Northeastern Biomass Flame

[The biomass industry is teaming up with environmentalists to increase the amount of forests burned for polluting energy in the Great North Woods.]
Fanning the Northeastern Biomass Flame
- by Joseph Seymour, March 11, 2014. Source: Biomass Magazine
[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"115","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"270","style":"width: 366px; height: 244px; float: left; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px;","width":"480"}}]]Migrating 1 million homes to biomass heat is optimistic—let alone 6 million—but recent developments in the northeastern U.S. are driving this vision ever closer to reality, says Biomass Thermal Energy Council Executive Director Joseph Seymour.
Bill Strauss, the Biomass Thermal Energy Council’s chief economist, recently reported that 1.34 million jobs would be created if the 6 million rural homes using expensive fossil fuels like propane and heating oil switched to domestically produced wood pellet fuel. Migrating 1 million homes to biomass heating fuels is optimistic—let alone 6 million—but recent developments in the northeastern U.S. are driving this vision ever closer to reality.

One sign came in January with the rollout of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2014 State of the State. In his address, Cuomo announced “Renewable Heat NY: The Low-Emission Biomass Heating Initiative,” a program designed to mainstream heating with biomass. Aspects of the program include fuel-switching at institutional- and commercial-scale facilities, and growing the state’s market for bulk delivery of biomass fuels. As novel as the program is, what I found most interesting was the way in which the program was pitched, as an economic development tool. It is designed to help create financing mechanisms, bolster markets, and then back away to allow for the private sector to drive future development. New York appears to be seeing the thermal policy forest through trees.
Massachusetts is yet another northeastern state pressing forward on biomass thermal policies.  By this column’s publication, the state’s Department of Energy Resources will likely have announced the recipients of its renewable thermal business program. Also, supporters of the Massachusetts Renewable Thermal Coalition breathed a sigh of relief when their namesake bill passed through a key state Senate committee unanimously. If enacted, the bill would include thermal energy from qualifying biomass installations in the state’s alternative portfolio standard alongside geothermal and solar thermal technologies. Although the bill contains fuel-sourcing and emissions requirements for biomass systems, the concessions were needed to advance to the bill. Legislative hurdles remain, but passage this summer is expected.
Maine rounds out the list of states that are pressing forward on thermal. Though the Pine Tree State cannot boast the legislative momentum of Massachusetts—though it is trying—it beats the others on thermal economics. The January polar vortex sent propane prices soaring across the country and consumers searching for alternatives. In Maine, the state’s energy office reported that in January, heating oil prices were up 4 percent and propane prices were up 23 percent compared to the same period in 2013. Local fuels like wood pellets and cordwood were running more than $20 cheaper per MMBtu than propane, and around $13 less than heating oil. Maine’s math is in biomass’s favor, even before factoring in Efficiency Maine’s new $5,000 pellet boiler rebate program. A word to the wise, however: Homeowners should act quickly to secure the rebate; the last pellet boiler rebate program was exhausted in 48 hours.   
There are numerous notable state efforts that will go unmentioned, but their effects are felt beyond New England, as confidence in modern biomass heating grows. Together, the Northeastern states are addressing issues like the government’s role in the biomass heating revolution, environmental compliance, system installation best practices, insurance and real estate considerations, forest health and fuel production, and broader access to markets. Each of these items will addressed, explored and acted upon during the Northeast Biomass Heating Conference and Expo, April 9-11, in Portland, Maine. Come to Portland and feel the heat of the thermal industry.  It is getting hotter by the minute.
Author: Joseph Seymour
Executive Director, Biomass Thermal Energy Council