Biomass Group Sees Potential for Replacing Fossil Fuels

10/13/2012 7:00 AM
By Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade Special Sections Editor

HARRISBURG, Pa. — The northeastern U.S. is prime for biomass energy because it uses a lot of fossil fuels that could be replaced with biomass heating, according to industry leaders.

That was one of the messages at the Oct. 3 inaugural conference of the Pennsylvania Biomass Energy Association, which was held at the Holiday Inn, Harrisburg East.

Rick Allan, secretary of the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, opened the conference by talking about the country’s longstanding historical use of biomass — mostly from forest products.

“Biomass has always been a part of the state’s energy policies, starting from Colonial days,” Allan said. “And it is a part of the (Pennsylvania) alternative energy portfolio.”

In recent years, the idea of biomass energy has expanded to include methane digesters on farms and landfills as well as new renewable biomass feedstocks. Programs encouraging biomass use in schools, hospitals and other institutions have grown biomass energy use in Pennsylvania.

Penn’s Woods leaves plenty of opportunity for biomass development, 16 million acres of forest. The challenge is that this resource is dispersed over a diverse set of landowners.

Support in the past decade has helped to advance the state’s biomass ranking. Allan said that more than 100 energy projects have been deployed. The state ranks first in methane digesters and is in the top three for landfill methane digestion.

Allan said DCNR is supportive of continued development of the biomass industry in a sustainable, viable way. His department has reviewed its state forest resources for their biomass harvest potential.

Joel Morrison, an ex-officio member of the biomass association’s board of directors, said that since the organization formally organized nine months ago, it has been working vigorously to bring the different segments of this industry together.

In addition to sponsoring the conference and tour this week, it is developing a Pennsylvania biomass prospectus and an inventory of the biomass industry in the state. The goal is to have the report released next year.

In the opening session and one breakout session, the key message was to get better recognition for the biomass industry as part of the renewable energy solution.

Joseph Seymour of the Biomass Thermal Energy Council said that people “looking for low-hanging fruit” to replace with renewable energy will find that 86 percent of the national heating oil demand is in the Northeastern U.S.

He talked about the interaction between national, regional and state programs, saying that state programs are on the front lines tackling local issues while developing the industry.

In this region, the Northeast Biomass Thermal Working Group has served as a conduit for the different biomass groups to share information, collect data and disseminate ideas. It also provides a forum to discuss roadblocks to development.

Angela Visintainer of Cambridge Environmental Technologies talked about the development of biomass technologies in Maryland, which she said is a significant market opportunity for the Keystone State.

Maryland is the fifth largest consumer of heating oil in the U.S. and is an “untapped” market for bioenergy.

With the size of Maryland’s poultry industry, Visintainer said, renewable energy projects using poultry litter would help manage the nutrient problems on the Delmarva Peninsula.

There has been progress to get Maryland’s governor and state Legislature on board, she said, but the state regulations date to the 1970s, which makes it harder to permit smaller renewable energy projects.

“In policies at the state, solar always comes out on top,” said John Ackerly of the Alliance for Green Heat, whose organization is focused on green residential heating.

In some ways, it’s because wood burning is the largest share of renewable heating resources — at 95 percent. The other is the image of the biomass industry as low tech and outdoor wood boilers, not the newer technologies that have come on line.

Many states don’t include wood stoves and boilers in their renewable energy incentives. Maryland added wood stoves and boilers to its mix after a push to provide a more affordable alternative renewable energy program for modest-income households.

Ackerly’s organization also is sponsoring a contest, similar to the solar decathlon, to encourage collegiate teams to develop innovations to keep wood-stove technology moving ahead.

“Wood is the fastest-growing heating fuel in America, Pennsylvania doubled it,” he said.

The downside is that the growth has not come from installing innovative new stoves, but by dusting off older, less-clean models.

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