[OPINION] Wood Pellets: Modern Wood Heating Making Inroads Across Northeast
[Read the opposing view to this opinion piece, “Wood Pellets: Don’t Cut and Burn Forests, Preserve Them As Carbon Sinks,” by Janet Sinclair of Concerned Citizens of Franklin County.]
– by Charlie Niebling, Partner, Innovative Natural Resource Solutions
A quiet revolution is taking place across the northeast. Heating with wood is finding broad new acceptance in applications from residential wood pellet stoves and boilers, to institutional and industrial pellet and chip heating of schools, businesses and hospitals.
Nothing new here, you say? Northeasterners have been heating with wood for almost 400 years, and Native Americans long before that. But we are not talking about your grandfather’s wood furnace, or the inefficient outdoor wood boilers that have given wood heating such a black eye.
New technologies that burn wood nearly as cleanly as propane and oil are making steady inroads into the northeastern market. It’s the ability to burn with efficient combustion that could lead to mainstream acceptance. Fully automated pellet systems of all sizes, bulk wood pellet delivery, refined and semi-dried wood chip fuels, and advanced technology boilers with smart emissions controls are making inroads and on the cusp of popular uptake.
Unpredictable Cost of Oil and Propane Driving the Growth
It’s not surprising that the northeast is leading the way. Over 85% of the nation’s heating oil consumption is in the six New England states and New York — some 4.5 billion gallons a year. In areas of the northeast that do not have access to natural gas, heating oil and propane are the predominant heating fuels, including much of New Hampshire. As oil and propane have become more volatile in pricing, New Englanders are increasingly looking to “heat local and renewable” options such as wood pellets and chips.
The market has responded, with a dozen new wood pellet plants in the region since 2008, bringing $140 million in investment and over 600,000 tons of new capacity. Advanced European boiler manufacturers have tested the waters here, and some are now forming partnerships with domestic companies so the systems can be made in the USA. Where only one small wood pellet bulk truck was making deliveries in the northeast prior to 2008, now there about 20, increasing delivery options for homeowners, businesses and institutions.
Over 1,500 new systems in New England and New York
In the last seven years, over 1,500 wood pellet, chip and advanced logwood boiler systems have been installed in ME, NH, VT, NY and MA. These range from chip boilers in schools and hospitals, to industrial process heat from pellets in factories, to over 250 commercial wood pellet systems in buildings large and small, and about 1,000 pellet boilers in homes.
This trend brings enormous potential benefits to the region. Every fuel dollar spent on a local, renewable fuel such as pellets and chips, and not spent to import fossil energy helps to retain wealth in the region. As an example, converting every home in northern New Hampshire’s Coos County heated with oil to pellets could keep $25 million/year in the NH North Country’s fragile economy.
Fuel Manufacturing and New Markets for Low Grade Wood
Local initiatives such as Windham Wood Heat in southeastern VT, and the Mohawk Woodlands Partnership of northwestern Massachusetts are also looking at expanding the use of sustainably sourced wood fuels to generate economic and environmental benefits. With funding from the Clean Energy Development Fund of Vermont, and the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources respectively, these efforts are focused on the retention of fuel dollar wealth and rural economic development by creating new markets for abundant low quality wood resources that otherwise have limited commercial markets.
Northeastern pellet manufacturing alone is now providing a market for over one million green tons of wood residues that did not exist a decade ago, partially offsetting the dramatic decline in wood markets resulting from closure of large pulp and paper manufacturers, and some biomass electric plants.
Contractors have invested in flail debarking, new micro-chippers and in-woods sorting capability to meet the growing demand. These markets co-exist with historic low-grade demand from remaining pulp and paper mills and biomass electric generation, and help public and private forest landowners regenerate woodlands often overstocked with low quality wood.
The infrastructure to distribute wood heating fuels efficiently shows tremendous promise. Across the northeast, companies are developing special expertise in sourcing and securing chips for commercial and institutional applications. New companies are forming to source refined semi-dry chip fuels through micro-chipping, drying, and screening — a new highly efficient fuel and boiler option developed in Europe and now finding acceptance in our region.
Potential Great with Sustainable Management
In 2010, modern wood heating leaders peered into their crystal ball to assess the potential for modern wood heating. Entitled “Heating the Northeast with Renewable Biomass: A Bold Vision for 2025,” this study estimated that renewable forest and agricultural biomass fuels from forests and farms could sustainably heat over 1 million new homes and businesses across New England and New York, and displace as much as 1.3 billion gallons of heating oil and propane. While a transformation of this scale represents an ambitious goal, it provides a useful target for what is possible.
Policy Support Gaining
Now state governments in the northeast are starting to see the opportunity and lining up to support renewable, low carbon wood heating technologies. Over the last few decades most state and federal renewable energy policy has been focused on electricity and transportation fuels like ethanol. New England and New York have been leaders with new policies to accelerate wood heating, such as NH’s addition of thermal energy to its “Renewable Portfolio Standard,” with the potential to bring new incentives to wood heating projects, and boiler rebate programs in NY, VT, NH, ME and MA which cover up to 45% of installed cost for homeowners and commercial buildings.
Europe as the Model?
This exciting market development represents an important opportunity for our region. We can look to European nations for examples of what is possible when public policy, private investment, consumer savings, and economic opportunity align to bring about major change. Countries like Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Austria have seen huge growth in modern wood heating.
One thing we know for certain: in 20 years filling oil tanks in northeastern basements will be much less common than it is today. It’s going to get replaced by something, and that something can in large measure be sustainably harvested wood — bringing tremendous new economic opportunity to our region’s forest economy.