Considering Biomass? Five Key Questions to Ask

Considering Biomass? Five Key Questions to Ask

The high cost of heating oil and other conventional energy sources is driving the growth of biomass as an alternative fuel. Biomass heating systems typically use wood chips or wood pellets, but biomass fuel sources could include waste products from landfills, sludge from wastewater treatment, industrial byproducts, or agricultural products like grass or sugarcane.

Here are five key questions to ask when considering a biomass system:

Is it cost effective?

In any application, the long-term cost and prevalence of other conventional fuel sources, such as natural gas, should be measured. However, in places where coal or oil are still predominant, biomass is a good candidate for replacement of these conventional fuels as biomass is renewable, abundant, and cost effective. For example, Marketplace recently reported that “New England and New York consume 86 percent of the nation’s number two heating oil. Wood is cheaper than oil, and wood-burning technologies have become highly efficient.”

Heating Costs MSAD 29

MSAD #29 heating costs, courtesy of Paul Prosser, Facilities Manager

Woodard & Curran helped Maine School Administrative District (MSAD) #29 evaluate the financial benefits of a woodchip biomass boiler. After a positive analysis, we assembled a design-build team to install the new boiler, provide woodchip storage, address EPA licensing requirements, and connect the new system to the existing hot water distribution system in the high school and adjacent vocational school. In its first year of operation, the biomass boiler at MSAD #29 cut the cost to heat their facilities by more than 40 percent. The combined cost of the wood chips and debt service were less than the cost of heating fuel, making the project cash-flow positive from day one.

Is the biomass fuel source locally sustainable?

It may make good financial sense to install a wood biomass system in forested areas where harvesting and production is readily available and there is no likelihood of natural gas supply. Where wood is scarce, there might be other biomass fuel sources that are more convenient and cost less to transport, like municipal solid waste in cities, manufacturing waste (such as sawdust or scrap wood), agricultural waste (manure), or agricultural crops like sugarcane (bagasse) and corn. In one example, Woodard & Curran worked with Northern Maine Community College to implement grass-burning capabilities for their biomass boilers, which benefited the local agricultural economy and provided a test case for grass pellet use by the USDA.

The availability of renewable biomass fuel far exceeds its current consumption. A recent U.S. Department of Energy study (PDF) concluded that there are at least 1.3 billion dry tons of domestic biomass fuels available annually. Woody biomass, in particular, is efficient in the Northeast because there’s so much of it in the region. University of Maine forestry professor Rob Lilieholm, explained to Marketplace that, “[t]here is more forest here today than at any point in the last 200 years.”

Jackson Lab, Maine

Through the use of a biomass boiler, the Jackson Lab offsets approx. 1.1M gallons of fuel oil with 11,000 tons of sustainably-harvested wood pellets.

Are permits required?

State and federal regulatory agencies dictate air emission standards. Depending on their type, size, and location, biomass systems often require environmental impact studies and permits, especially those related to air quality. In one such case, our firm supported the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine to complete a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review to move forward with a wood-pellet boiler project that now offsets the burning of 1.1 million gallons of heating fuel with 11,000 tons of wood pellets annually.

Is your system designed for optimal benefit?

It’s possible to not only use biomass to fuel heating systems—it’s also widely used to generate electricity. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission reports (PDF) that in 2012 the United States produced 15 gigawatts of biomass-fueled power capacity, or 1.3 percent of total capacity generated nationwide.

At the Sullivan County Complex in Unity, New Hampshire, Woodard & Curran provided design/build services to replace the obsolete boilers fired on number-two heating oil with a biomass boiler system that efficiently heats administrative offices, a nursing home, and a correctional facility. In addition, the project included a 40 kW backpressure steam turbine generator for cogeneration or combined heat and power that reduces electricity purchases by ten percent at the nursing home alone. In total, the use of biomass fuel at the complex reduces annual CO2 emissions by 1,200 metric tons and saves approximately $300,000 in oil and electricity costs each year. In this example and in most applications, the addition of a biomass-based combined heat and power system can generate its own electricity at 50-60 percent of the cost of purchased power.

Is biomass the right choice to upgrade an outdated system?

Many operations are choosing biomass systems in new construction projects, but biomass boilers also succeed as replacements for outdated or inefficient systems. When the Town of Peterborough, NH needed to make substantial improvements to its wastewater treatment facility, it called on long-term partner Woodard & Curran to design and build the $10 million system upgrade. Completed in 2012, the renovated facility design included a wood-pellet modular boiler system with an oil-fuel backup.

The use of biomass fuel is steadily rising, but its lower-cost and sustainability indicates its use will certainly rise. (Source: US EIA)

The use of biomass fuel is steadily rising, but its lower-cost and sustainability indicates its use will certainly rise. (Source: US EIA)

Conventional fuel price volatility points to an increased use of biomass

Biomass is currently the largest single source of renewable fuel in the United States, and its use is expected to expand. As lower-cost fuel demand increases, biomass production will become more prevalent and less expensive.

Marketplace reports that the Northeast currently gets four percent of its heat from wood, but that could increase to almost 20 percent. The U.S. as a whole has the potential to substantially increase its biomass production. In 2011, U.S. biomass fuel production reached a record level, but only accounted for approximately six percent of total energy production. To put that in perspective, twenty percent of Finland’s energy and sixteen percent of Sweden’s supply comes from biomass. Making use of the more than one-billion tons of available and sustainable domestic biomass resources would enable the U.S. to create a nearly seven-fold increase in biomass production and displace roughly thirty percent of current petroleum consumption.


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