[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.

One comment

  • Rolf Cachat-Schilling

    Biomass – a Well-Funded Myth

    The claim of sustainability made in pro-biomass propaganda is entirely false. Biomass is treated as carbon neutral, even though many groups of concerned scientists, several independent studies as quoted in the New York Times and a biomass forestry study by Harvard University have sharply criticized the flawed models and calculations that lead to these claims. The misinformation campaign claims biomass is “part of a complex process of carbon capture, storage, and emission that carries on much the same whether trees become forest bioenergy, or are lost to insects, disease, storm damage, wildfires and the like.” Burning biomass and natural carbon cycle processes are opposite in nature and effect. The state and private cash interests are paying big money to snow the public by painting pollution and clear-cutting-for-cash green.

    None of the factors mentioned in the above media quote occur on any scale approaching the multi-hundred-acre and multi-thousand acre cut plans currently enacted or approved. Insects, disease, storms, fires, none occur with any frequency on any scale in the Northeast of North America. Before global warming, fires in Canada’s taiga were almost unknown. Yet, in almost any sector of the same region, on almost any scale, you can demonstrate that the forest is fragmented, reduced to predominantly young age (absent any ancient forest) and missing recently-recorded species – all due to human exploitation.

    Many forest ecologists have studied carbon cycles, and soil biologists, including myself, have published studies on natural gas exchange cycles. Forests and the microbial communities beneath them draw on recycled atmospheric carbon that is largely fossil and inorganic in origin, the product of our planet’s formation and continuing geological dynamic. Forests, and the animals that depend on them, evolved slowly as carbon and inorganic elements were gathered into a living crust on the earth. In this nest, we came to be. That portion of the earth that became life grew over eons, accumulating, diversifying. The last 12-15 thousands years post-glaciers in Northeast America have been ruled by accumulation and diversification. The previous inhabitants tread lightly until about 1670, when a pattern of rapid extinction is evident and continues. Since then, we have lost elms, chestnuts, wolves, greater auks, passenger pigeons, Eskimo curlews and 30-60% of the species large and small that complete that list since colonization. The endangered species list for the state has grown by as almost as many species as I have years in my lifetime. Familiar species are now rare or endangered in my home county.

    Carbon and other elements that make up the backbone of forests and their inhabitants are largely locked into a system of recycled resources, a system which contains plants, animals, and fungi, and which is based many billions of microbes. Forests generate their own rain through respiration of water vapor interacting with the terrain. Forests also respire oxygen that animals uptake, and in turn release carbon dioxide and water vapor, which plants then reuptake. Fungi, bacteria and a host of microbes in the soil and duff layers perform similar cycles, also interacting with plants through mycelia-root interfaces. A mature forest in temperate zones is never dry because the lower strata are never exposed to unfiltered wind or sun. The moisture breathed out by the canopy at dusk falls back as dew and drips, one drop at a time, back to the forest floor in erosion-free nighttime micro-irrigation. A healthy forest is largely a closed system, especially in the case of large, intact forests. In a way, the degree to which a forest is a closed system can be taken as a measure of its “intactness.” Fragmentation is destroying the intactness and self-sustaining nature of the world’s great forests. Our current watershed forests and commercial forests are predominantly young, losing diversity and drawing on thinned soils and degraded biomass density, both above and below the soil. Losing soil, species, total biomass per acre, and carbon-holding capacity, these forests are no longer intact.

    In a healthy Northwestern old-growth forest, the salmon bits left behind by last year’s hungry bears in the forest become nitrogen for the trees through the help of fungi, and once in those trees, that nitrogen is locked up for 3-5,000 years, as long as no biomass loggers arrive. A carbon molecule that enters the leaf of a tree of our temperate forests is potentially locked up for 300-3,000 years. If it enters lichen, it can be locked up for as much as 40,000 years. Some fungi are quite ancient, too.

    Biomass is the opposite. Biomass takes a closed system and releases all its carbon at once, while creating huge quantities of fine particulate pollution. Worse, biomass also releases carcinogenic polycyclic compounds, aldehydes, benzene, and more, while also releasing nitrogen and sulfur species that generate acid rain. Biomass takes a conserved and closed system of vital elemental resources and spews all its toxic content into the air, whereas forest fungi and bacteria digest and neutralize most known toxins. Biomass takes a system of resources that is built up from barren inorganic wasteland over billions of years, which system slowly harvests elemental resources and builds them into a realm of living synergy, and annihilates it utterly. The result of biomass is a massive carbon load into the atmosphere, denuding of the landscape, while having the doubled effect of cutting down those forests that are needed to draw out the carbon that is throwing world climate off balance.

    Biomass dumps massive loads of carbon into the atmosphere just at a time when we need to put the brakes on global climate destabilization. Biomass makes our climate problem much worse today and for generations to come, by taking a “now” problem and throwing the debt for carbon banking on several generations of our children and their weakened forests.

    Damage by biomass to the atmosphere is aggravated by damage on the ground by logging. Modern machinery requires total clearing of underbrush and produces near clear-cut conditions, where 70-80+% of biomass is removed or killed. Logging, worsened by numerous roadbeds, causes large-scale erosion across all grades of land. Exposure to the sun of forest soils causes the soils to become prone to fire and to become microbial deserts, empty of the hundreds of fungal species found in mature forests. Birds that depend on cover for nesting and ground birds are devastated. Rare plants, animals, fungi and invertebrates that rely on forest cover are forced to relocate or die off. Many do not successfully obtain alternate habitat. Expanding logging means fewer refugee species will find new habitat. Roads and open cuts invite invasive species and animals, exposing birds and animals on the newly-created edge forest to predation. Drying soils exhale huge amounts of carbon, acid-forming nitrogen and sulfur species, plus methane (many times more greenhouse-effective than carbon dioxide) into the air. Deadwood on the ground becomes fireload and pine thickets that spring up are the most fire prone of all forests.

    Mature forests are rich in diversity and lock up far more carbon than scraggly, young regrowth plantation-forests do. Cut forests dwindle in biodiversity with each cut, despite the nonsense propagated by the state. Each cut of a forest knocks out one or several species. Each time you log a forest, there are species that do not survive the cut. Repeated cuts expand the list of not-survivors. The forest has its own processes of diversifying – storm knockdowns, fires and beavers. Beavers, if left alone, convert large areas of forest to wetland, but just a little bit at a time, which then cycles back to forest after the beaver has moved on to new prospects. Only small parts of a habitat are altered at one time. The trees are cleared in micro-scale, without roads, invasives or machinery. The soil is much enriched by the beaver’s activities, and the regrown forest is improved, with added diversity, not subtracted. Moreover, beaver do not burn off trees into the air, but rather, eat the bark, small branches and twigs, using other parts for damming, and leaving logs under remaining cover to rot. What rots in the forest under tree cover remains moist – unlike logged areas – and so does not release into the air, but is digested by a living network which shares and recycles every atom of that log.

    Worse, each time the forest is cut, the biomass is removed – that’s what is burned. The forest is left to regenerate by digging into the inorganic soil and the dead soil community – starting over almost from scratch. The result is that each generation of cuts produces a thinner forest with fewer species on weaker soil, soil that has lost richness from erosion and from relying on the dead soil microbes as food for new forests. Each cut pushed forward the point at which the forest can recover to what it once was, to square one. Each cut means a real-world “square one, minus one” deficit, in terms of all forest benefits.

    Few processes are as opposed to one another as biomass burning and healthy forests or healthy atmospheres.

    Rolf Cachat-Schilling

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