Biomass refers to any solid biological material that can be used as fuel, and includes the chopped wood that many Vermonters already use to heat their homes. While antique wood stoves burn inefficiently, and put off lots of soot and smoke, modern biomass systems have very low particulate matter (tiny particles that can cause breathing problems) emissions, offer proven reliability, and when fed with responsibly harvested waste forestry and mill waste products contribute minimal additional CO2 to the atmosphere. Using ultra-clean boilers, community-scale biomass projects offer a cost competitive alternative to fossil fuel electricity and heat generation — efficiencies in “Combined Heat and Power” systems can reach up to 80%. See all Bioenergy Members
Biomass History and Usage
While the creation of biomass energy dates back to the first time a fire was lit, modern biomass energy projects go far beyond the primitive resources of simply lighting and sustaining a fire. Benefiting from computer-aided design and the latest incineration technologies, these systems are used to heat whole communities, and meet utility-scale electrical demands in locations around the world; here in the US we have 10 gigawatts (GW) of biomass capacity currently installed.
Biomass in Vermont
Biomass systems in Vermont range from residential-scale pellet furnaces, to community-scale heating systems, and on to utility-scale electric generation facilities like the 50 MW McNeill plant in Burlington. As of 2009, Community-scale woodchip and wood pellet furnaces were in use in over 45 schools throughout Vermont, and in several University, College, and governmental and municipal facilities, a number that is growing steadily. Feasibility studies into using local crops such as switchgrass for biomass feedstocks are being conducted, also.
With its long, cold winter season New England consumes 85% of the heating oil used in America — making widespread biomass use an avenue where Vermonters could make a significant reduction in national fossil fuel use.
Learn More About Biomass
- Download REV’s Biomass Educational Factsheet (pdf)
- Union of Concerned Scientists page on Biomass
- Vermont’s is the homebase for one of the best organizations for biomass information, the Biomass Energy Resource Center
- US Department of Energy, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy
- US Department of Energy, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Biomass Program
- Biomass Thermal Energy Council
- Why use biomass fuels?
- Where does woody biomass come from?
- What kinds of facilities use biomass?
- How stable is the supply of woodchips? Will they always be available?
- Why should we use the forest for energy?
- What are the impacts of using the forest for fuel?
- Does using biomass for fuel from the forests destroy habitats?
- Are woodchips as clean as gas or oil?
- Will the wood smoke be an air-quality problem?
- Are the wood ashes toxic? Where and how are they disposed?
- Where can I find out more about community-scale biomass?
Low fuel cost is the main attraction of heating with woodchips. Unlike fuel oil, propane, and natural gas, biomass has a history of stable prices that are unaffected by global economics and political events.
Biomass is a locally available fuel source that increases the region’s energy independence and security while stimulating the local economy by keeping energy dollars circulating in the region rather than exporting them. Using wood also helps to support the forest products industry, creating markets, and forestry and agriculture jobs in the surrounding region.
Modern community-scale biomass systems burn cleanly, with virtually no visible emissions or odors, and, compared with modern residential-scale wood and pellet stoves, with far less emissions of particulate matter (PM), an exhaust product of wood combustion known for its adverse effects on human respiratory health. For example, over the course of a winter season, the heating plant of a 200,000 square foot wood-heated school in a cold northern climate produces about the same amount of PM as five residential-scale wood stoves.
Burning wood for energy has a positive impact in moderating global climate change. Carbon dioxide (CO2) buildup in the atmosphere is a significant cause of global climate change. Fossil fuel combustion takes carbon that was locked away underground (as crude oil and gas) and transfers it to the atmosphere as CO2. When wood is burned, however, it recycles carbon that was already in the natural carbon cycle. Biomass Energy Resource Center
Woody biomass fuel can come from various sources: sawmills that chip wood as a by-product, directly from harvesting operations in the woods, or from clean community wood wastes such as chipped urban tree trimmings, stumps, and discarded Christmas trees. While woodchips can also come from clean construction and demolition material, this fuel is not acceptable in New Hampshire and other areas due to possible chemical contamination of the material and the associated air-quality issues from burning it. In addition to these traditional sources, chips are increasingly being produced from chipped low-grade logs or “pulpwood” in dedicated chip yards and chip mills. Biomass Energy Resource Center
Facilities suitable for biomass systems include colleges, universities, hospitals, public buildings, hotels and motels, commercial buildings, greenhouses, large-scale agricultural operations, manufacturing plants, power plants, schools, and community district energy systems (the latter being the use of a central heating plant to provide heat to multiple buildings using buried pipes to distribute the energy). BERC’s expertise is in ‘community-scale’ biomass systems in the 1-to-10 million Btu per hour (output) range. Biomass Energy Resource Center
In the Northeast, biomass as a by-product is well-spoken for and transitioning from a waste-stream product to a commodity. A gauge to the vitality of this market commodity is the strength of the forest products industry, which provides the infrastructure (loggers, mills, trucks, etc.) required to supply the seasonal heating market. The biomass energy needs of the seasonal heating market can be better met if integrated into the existing market by piggybacking onto a regional anchor such as a pulpmill or cluster of wood-fired facilities. Biomass Energy Resource Center
Humans have a long history of utilizing forests for sustenance— including food, fuel, shelter, clothing, fences and barriers, weapons, and numerous other uses. As we continue to use wood products, it makes sense to also use the low-grade material and wood wastes that are generated to displace fossil fuels for heating. In fact, providing markets for these low-grade and waste materials is a key component of both sustainable harvesting and forest conservation, helping forested parcels maintain long-term value as a sustained resource. Sustainably produced biomass from forests is a local renewable energy source that keeps energy dollars circulating in the local economy by creating markets for low-grade wood, adding economic vitality and jobs to the forest-products industry, and improving the health of our forests. Biomass Energy Resource Center
Procuring biomass fuel is integrated into harvesting operations that are already occurring; therefore there is no additional impact to the forest. Removing low-quality trees for biomass can actually help forests by opening up space necessary for higher-quality trees to grow faster. Further, without markets for low-quality wood, only high-quality trees are harvested, thereby degrading the forest quality over time. While any forest management plan should consider the resiliency of the particular forest being harvested, some level of management and harvest most often is restorative as opposed to damaging, with short-term impacts minimized and long-term negligible. Some positive impacts include sustaining the local forest products industry, maintaining the value of forested land, and sourcing forest-based products locally rather than putting that burden on more distant forests. ‘Community-scale’ biomass projects that are properly sited and implemented do not put undue strain on forest resources. Biomass Energy Resource Center
Biomass fuel harvesting is nearly always conducted as part of an integrated timber harvest where multiple products (veneer, sawlogs, pulp, and firewood) are removed at the same time. As long as good forest management practices are followed, the biomass fuel harvesting results in no additional impact on wildlife habitat. It is important to note that some harvesting is often prescribed by foresters specifically for enhancing or expanding the habitat of various game and non-game wildlife. Many types of wildlife require open areas created by harvesting and the early successional vegetation that takes over after a harvest. Depending on the forest management objectives, biomass harvesting can in fact contribute to the diversity of wildlife habitat in a forest. Biomass Energy Resource Center
The answer depends on the pollutant to which you are comparing woodchips. Wood has lower sulfur dioxide emissions and net greenhouse gas emissions than both oil and propane; however, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and total organic compound emissions are higher from wood than oil. Oxides of nitrogen (NOx) emissions from wood are comparable to oil. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), some of which are produced by combustion, are higher when using wood than when using natural gas or oil, but each fuel emits different VOCs at varying levels and each type has varying reactivity. It is important to note that using the best available control technology and combustion practices, careful siting, appropriate stack (chimney) height, and careful consideration of dispersion patterns will bring emissions well within permissible limits and lessen the impacts of any pollutants emitted when burning biomass. In addition, biomass is considered a carbon neutral fuel when harvested using sustainable forestry practices, and its use when replacing fossil fuels helps mitigate the effects of climate change. Biomass Energy Resource Center
Automated, commercial-sized woodchip and pellet systems burn much cleaner than even the most modern home wood or pellet stove. They produce no creosote and practically no visual smoke or odor. Because the biomass fuel is green, or close to 50 percent water, however, in cold weather the chimney may show a plume of condensed water vapor. Interviews with dozens of system operators support the conclusion that odor generated by the fuel or the smoke is almost never a problem, and in most cases, both chip and pellet systems easily meet state air quality standards. Biomass Energy Resource Center
Wood ash from institutional and commercial heating plants is not toxic, in fact, it is an excellent soil additive for agricultural use. It can also be spread on athletic fields and gardens or disposed of at a landfill. Biomass Energy Resource Center
The Biomass Energy Resource Center, is an excellent resource for information.