Biomass appeal Aaron Aber and Ben Bell Walker, of the Biomass Thermal Energy Council, spoke to PEN about the challe[…] 28/11/16 Education

Aaron Aber and Ben Bell Walker, of the Biomass Thermal Energy Council, spoke to PEN about the challenges of catalysing the uptake of biomass energy and its role in renewables

Biomass is organic material which can be used to produce fuel and generate energy. Often plant-based material, biomass is a renewable and low-carbon option which can produce electricity and thermal energy. As an energy source, biomass could reduce dependency on fossil fuels and address all of the key sectors of energy use, including transportation and heating. Nevertheless, biomass has received very little attention, particularly in the US, compared to other renewables such as solar and wind.

The Biomass Thermal Energy Council (BTEC) is the national industry trade association for biomass thermal energy in the US. BTEC’s goals are to educate the public on the value of biomass, and introduce legislation which would bring the technology to the fore in combatting climate change. With its international membership, the group is engaged in the conversation around renewable energy, and seeks to address many of the issues that must be overcome if biomass is to be seen as a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels.

Education and awareness raising

In the US, climate change is a hotly debated and highly politicised issue, and so information around renewables is often biased. A key challenge is that, for this reason, many people do not know what biomass is, how it is produced, or what makes it more environmentally friendly than coal, oil and other common fuels. Aaron Aber, a project assistant at BTEC, outlined the difficulties created by incorrect perceptions about biomass thermal energy: “I think the general sense among a lot of people is that you’re burning wood and it’s releasing a lot of smoke, ash and other types of pollutants. People don’t normally associate biomass with high efficiency boilers, high efficiency stoves and other types of biomass beyond wood.”

Another challenge is a lack of concern about environmental issues in the US. According to a recent poll by Gallup, the US-based research company, only 64% of Americans are worried a great deal or a fair amount about climate change, while 36% are worried only a little or not at all. Aber explained that for some Americans, taking action against global warming would represent larger cultural changes that many are reluctant to accept. Despite this, biomass energy could serve to revitalise some communities: “You have people in areas of the United States, for example, that would benefit greatly from biomass, because coal and mining have really declined in those areas, and at the same time, those areas tend to have a lot of woodland. I’m thinking of Appalachia, for example, Kentucky and West Virginia, that area of the country too. There is a lot of woodland, and a lot of opportunity to develop biomass, but people there have been mining for the last 50 or 100 years, and there’s a resistance to change. The new industry is moving in and trying to combat an issue that they don’t feel is actually a problem, so there’s a lot of resistance.”

In many such regions, Aber said, the history of coal mining and economic dependency on the production of fossil fuels has created a situation where people are strongly opposed to the rise of alternative fuels, even when this could be beneficial to local economies: “In Appalachia, coal mining is central to their identity in many ways. It’s the industry that made that region. It’s what made them rich, and now it’s what’s making them poor, but it’s so tied to who they are and what they do that they’re concerned about another industry moving in – especially an industry related to climate change, which many people in that region don’t believe in or aren’t concerned about. It makes it really hard in certain areas of the country to develop biomass, even though the potential to develop biomass in those regions is very large.”

© Sheila Sund

The economic argument

Nevertheless, BTEC feels that the introduction of biomass production facilities could act as an economic stimulus for some regions. In many coal mining regions, the increased focus on green energy has led to mine closures, job losses, and economic downturn, but Aber believes that the biomass industry could offer a way to revitalise those communities: “Biomass is a great alternative in many rural areas that rely on mining to develop their local economies, especially with mines closing and with coal use decreasing. There’s a finite supply of coal, so those areas were bound to suffer some economic depression at some point, when those resources began to run out. But with biomass, in theory, if it’s harvested sustainably it creates a more sustainable economic environment than a more finite resource like coal or oil.”

What’s more, biomass also has economic advantages over other renewables, particularly in terms of job growth. Ben Bell Walker, technical affairs manager at BTEC, highlighted a number of parallels between the biomass industry and the coal industry, meaning that these communities could transition fairly easily to a more sustainable alternative: “When we’re looking at local jobs, renewables like solar and wind don’t offer as many, because of the nature of them.” Biomass, he said, involved “harvesting the wood, processing it and delivering it. That’s something that’s better suited to the traditional mindset of delivering fuel oil.”

The European model

Although it is primarily based in the US, BTEC has strong ties with a number of European countries, counting several EU companies as members. “We have had a fairly active partnership with the Energy Agency of Upper Austria,” Bell Walker explained. “We’ve brought industry delegates to the US, and I’ve been to Austria to visit them. We really do look to Europe as a model for our industry.”

Elaborating, he said that the successes seen by many EU member states in the renewables sector could be used as templates to encourage a similar uptake of renewables in the US: “We really look to Austria, and to Sweden and to Denmark, a lot of the European countries really, as pioneers in doing biomass heating very well and very efficiently. There are 50 different states here in the US, and they’re not all going to work on the same model, so it’s really helpful to see that progress there.”

Standards and certification

The benefits of a large-scale uptake of biomass across the US, taking as a model the European approach to renewables, are evident, but can the challenges posed by misinformation and a lack of incentive to introduce new technology be overcome? BTEC has developed a

two-pronged approach, lobbying for policy changes on the one hand and developing technical and regulatory standards for biomass energy on the other. “In terms of policy, we’re pushing for tax credits for biomass thermal systems to be treated the same as other renewables,” Aber summarised, “while as far as technical and regulatory standards, we’re pushing for more uniformity in how fuels and different equipment are assessed and used.”

Bell Walker offered more detail about the technical standards that BTEC are working to implement: “We’ve been working with the American Society for Testing Materials. It’s a national standards body, and they have a standard for legally sourced wood. We’ve also seen their sourcing standard referenced as a way to deal with green buildings standards for biomass. So that would include things like making sure that there’s a chain of custody and a forest management plan for timber. Or, it could certify that the wood comes from sawmill residue, which is a waste product from an existing process, so you’re not growing or harvesting any more trees.”

Expanding on this certification process, he continued: “We’ve only recently gotten into certifications; really certifying where the fuel is produced and how it’s produced. If you’re familiar with any kind of certification from the Sustainable Forestry Initiative or the Forest Stewardship Council, which certify all kinds of paper and other forestry products, a lot of it is like that. We’re working with those groups.”

These standards are particularly necessary in biomass production given that certain elements of the process – in particular the transportation of the wood – can introduce additional greenhouse gas emissions and potentially offset the environmental value of using biomass thermal energy. BTEC, however, argues that wood residue does not need to travel very far in most circumstances. “It hasn’t really been a problem for our association in the US,” Bell Walker notes. “We’re focused on the domestic market, and a lot of the lifecycle emissions that people are worried about are really more focused on the export market.”

He added: “Economically speaking, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to ship biomass out of your region by land. Even when shipping it by sea, you’ll notice that it’s not transported very far by land, that the biomass is produced pretty close to where the sources are.”

Incentives and investments
Along with an abundance of misinformation around biomass, one of the fundamental challenges of implementing the technology on a wider scale in the US is a lack of financial investment and incentives, something which BTEC is hoping to address through its lobbying efforts. As Aber mentioned, the organisation is particularly focused on creating new tax credits to incentivise the use of biomass thermal energy in the US, in a way that mimics those previously offered to help launch other renewables. Bell Walker explained this process further: “The main way that renewable energy is incentivised in the United States is through the investment and production of tax credits. That was a great motivator for the wind and solar industries to really mature, for example. There are a lot of renewable energies – and biomass is one of them, but there is also geothermal and others – that right now have some tax incentives, some language that we’re hoping to get passed in one of the bills this year. That would put our technology on a similar level of investment to other renewables.”

There are broader issues at stake, as Bell Walker noted: “On a higher level, fossil fuels have other types of subsidies – drilling and infrastructure credits, for example – which offer tax depreciation and things like that. We would say that that is one way that we could address that lack of investment.

“We would also say that there’s a lack of sophistication around the financial mechanisms with which to encourage investment. There isn’t really the equivalent of the Power Purchase Agreement on the thermal side, except for in a few states which offer thermal renewable energy credits. We’re pushing that as a way for people who are generating heat from biomass, which is the most efficient way to generate energy from biomass, to actually be properly compensated. Once those mechanisms are in place, I think investors will be a lot more interested in these projects on the whole, but right now it’s kind of case by case.”

Aber concurred: “I would agree with the essential crux of that argument: there’s not enough investment in funding in biomass.”

The BTEC approach 

The efforts of BTEC to combat some of these concerns, and implement some of the proposed solutions, are manifold. “As an organisation, a lot of what we do is education and outreach,” Bell Walker said. “For example, we have a regional biomass conference that’s all about biomass heating, and we try to work with the traditional heating industry – ventilation, air conditioning installers, home contractors and others – to help them see the benefits of this type of system.”

In order to combat the false perception that many people have of the environmental value of biomass, BTEC addresses its efforts at both the industry, and at end users of biomass heating systems. Bell Walker continued: “To a certain extent, if people don’t understand something, they’re reluctant to use it, even if it might save them money or benefit them environmentally. There are a lot of people out there who are environmentally conscious, and who have high heating needs. This would be a good system for them.

“A priority for us is educating the broader community, and reaching out beyond just the early adopters, and the people who were really forward-thinking. We want to make biomass a more mainstream technology through things like combined heat and power, and other things that are very popular topics right now politically, in terms of the energy conversation.”

In terms of specific policy goals, Aber outlined where BTEC’s emphasis would lie in the organisation’s future: “Policy-wise, our priorities moving forward would be to continue seeking ways to put biomass on an equal footing with solar, wind and other renewable energies. As the Clean Power Plan moves forward in the US, we’ll also be working to make biomass a part of that, as well as any subsequent environmental legislation or rule making. We want to make sure biomass is a part of that, so that states and the federal government can use those technologies to meet renewable energy goals.”
Aaron Aber

Project Assistant

Ben Bell Walker

Technical Affairs Manager

Biomass Thermal Energy Council

This article first appeared in issue 20 of Pan European Networks: Government, available here.

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