Making a Case for a Wood Heating Policy
March 4, 2014 | 6:28 pm UTC
Great Designs in Wood - The Phoebe Table

Making a Case for a Wood Heating PolicyLast fall I received the following note from Collin Miller at the Northern Forest Center.

Dear Friends and Colleagues:
Ever wonder why more U.S. homes, businesses and institutions aren’t heating with wood? In fact, 84% of the fossil fuels consumed in the Northeast are used to heat buildings. Yikes!
We’re trying to change that but we need your help…
Click here to sign onto our letter by October 11th to show your support for federal policies that give biomass (chips, pellets, bi-products of ag/forestry co-products) a fighting chance as a renewable thermal energy source. Read on for more context….

The letter goes on to provide background on the organizations and the justification for their lobbying effort on behalf of biomass thermal heating. Specifically, the letter we we were asked to sign lobbied our national government to:

  • Provide tax credits for the installation of woody biomass energy systems.
  • Fund the Forest Service Woody Biomass Utilization Grants Program to advance the design and engineering of biomass energy systems.
  • Reauthorize and fully fund the Community Wood Energy Program in the next Farm Bill.
The second of these objectives caught my attention, because it was through funding of the Woody Biomass Utilization Grants Program that I was able to conduct research in 2012 on the potential growth of biomass heating in industrial and commercial buildings in the 37 easternmost United States.
My research partners, Lew McCreery and Jan Wiedenbeck of the US Forest Service, and Tom and Dan Wilson of Wilson Engineering Services, were interested in evaluating each of the states in the described regions for their potential for conversion of existing non-wood boilers in industrial and commercial buildings to woody biomass boilers, so that they could better target states for their efforts in proposing woody biomass conversion feasibility studies.
Our results were interesting and at least partially unexpected. From the abstract of our recent paper published in the journal Renewable Energy:
In total, 3,495 oil and coal boiler units in industrial and commercial buildings, and 1,067 major wood energy facilities in the 37 eastern states were identified. These represent a subset of existing and potential conversions from fossil fuels to woody biomass. Based on this sample and energy consumption data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA), we estimate that there are currently 31,776 oil, coal, and propane boiler units over 0.5 MMBtus/hour capacity in these 37 states, representing a total energy consumption of 1.7 quadrillion Btus, or roughly the equivalent of 287 million barrels of oil. Were these units all converted to woody biomass fuel, they would consume a total of 121 million dry tons of wood per year, about three times the most recent US DOE estimates of woody biomass availability in those regions. Since only the most economical conversions typically occur, the reality of woody biomass market availability combined with thermal fossil-fuel consumption patterns suggests that roughly one-third of all potential projects could be achieved under sustainable utilization of existing biomass feedstocks in the three regions.
Analysis of the results indicates that a targeted response to wood-conversion initiatives will yield the most successful program of fossil-fuel replacement in thermal applications. A ranking index developed in this study through analysis of existing boiler installations and availability of wood feedstocks suggests that the top ten states in the eastern United States on which to focus future messaging, feasibility studies, and policy development for potential woody biomass conversions are: Maine, Texas, New York, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Pennsylvania (in that order).

We looked at three primary aspects of what makes for high potential conversion opportunities: the number of industrial and commercial boilers in each state, the types of fuels used in those existing boilers, and the amount of biomass energy currently generated in that state. By combining these factors into an index and ranking the states by these combined factors, we produced the following table.

Table 4. Boiler conversion potential to wood of each state, listed by overall weighted rank. From Ray et al, "Biomass Boiler Conversion Potential in the Eastern United States", Renewable Energy 62 (2014) 439-453.

We concluded in our paper...

The New England states have been more inclined to utilize wood for electricity, wood pellet production has been more focused in the Mid-Atlantic and Gulf regions, and wood combustion for heat is common throughout the entire Northeast, South, and Lake States regions. In total, this study identified 1,067 wood-based energy facilities in the eastern United States. These 1,067 facilities together consume roughly 86.2 million dry tons of wood per year.
The focus of this study was to estimate the population of oil, coal, and propane-fired commercial and industrial boilers in the eastern 37 states as potential targets for conversion to wood. Using data compiled from EIA sources, we found that coal, oil, and propane (an oil-derived gas) still account for 25% of all boiler installations. By our estimates, this represents a total of 31,776 oil, coal, and propane boilers of interest across the thirty-seven states, with a total energy consumption of 1.665 quadrillion Btu’s, or the equivalent of roughly 287 million barrels of oil.
Conversion of all of these installations to wood would require approximately 121 million dry tons of wood. However, since the most recent estimate of available woody biomass for energy by the Department of Energy in the 2011 Billion-Ton Update [8] is only roughly 80-100 million tons per year (assuming a mix of 50% logging residue and 50% forest thinnings) for the entire United States. When available logging residue amounts and simulated forest thinning volume estimates for the 37 eastern states included here are separated out, the Billion-Ton Update suggests we can convert only about one-third of these targeted boiler systems (requiring roughly 40 million dry tons) at sustainable levels of biomass harvesting.
Traditionally, the conversion of oil, coal, and propane thermal heating systems to wood-fired systems has been undertaken in rural, forested areas of the country where availability of woody biomass is high and inexpensive. However, when the entire population of oil, coal, and propane-fired commercial and industrial boilers is surveyed, it becomes apparent that the best opportunity for further conversion projects may be in highly-populated areas that have an abundance of commercial and industrial development and are fairly near to abundant sources of woody biomass.
Read More Chuck Ray:

How Climate Change Impacts Forest Fires

Go Wood: Winter Road Maintenance, the Old-Fashioned Way

Wood Science 101: Where Does Cork Come From?

The toughest constraint against the development of an economical biomass supply chain is the low density of customers in an area attempting to procure wood. Were biomass project opportunities approached in clusters where commercial and industrial coal, oil, and propane boilers are plentiful and dense, potential suppliers would be able to optimize delivery economics and potential customers would be able to acquire a less costly non-fossil fuel for their thermal heating applications. The data accumulated and analyzed in this study support the notion that perhaps wood biomass conversion projects have the greatest potential impact in high-density population centers, not the traditional rural locations where wood bioenergy is normally utilized. However, we expect to see rural operations continue to lead the way in conversion to wood-firing.

The link to the full paper above works by subscription only; if it fails to work for you, and you would like a copy of the paper, send me an email request and I'll send you a .pdf file of it.

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