Interest Grows in Wood-Based Biomass

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Wood-based biomass is making inroads. The projects are not on a large and dramatic scale, but collectively bring the benefits of the approach to many people – and make it something about which energy managers must be familiar.

A good example is the Berlin Memorial School in Berlin, MA. The Telegram reports that the town’s fire department will visit installations similar to the one it plans in order to educate itself.

The science is moving forward. Biomass Magazine reports that Sam Hazen, a University of Massachusetts Amherst Associate Biology Professor, has shown that his research, which aims at increasing biomass yield in grasses, can lead to trees that deliver a greater amount of wood than conventional trees, the story says. The research focuses on the cell walls of the plants or trees.

Hazen also is the chief scientific officer for Genoverde, which has partnered with the school to explore commercialization of the research. The company has gotten a one-year, $225,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Innovation Research program to test the research on loblolly pine trees.

Earlier this week, Michigan State University Extension Forester Bill Cook posted a blog on the use of wood as an energy source at The Daily Press, a site in Michigan. His take is that “advanced wood chip systems” work well to spaces of 50,000 square feet, “although this breakpoint is not set in stone.” Proof of the efficacy of the approach, according to Cook, is the installation of more than 100 institutional sized systems by Michigan-based Messersmith Manufacturing.

Cook suggests that the challenge to wood-based strategies is more about logistics and developing a distribution chain than about inherent flaw in technology or limitation of supply. Overall, the future is bright for the sector as a whole: “Biomass needs to be defined,” Cook wrote to Energy Manager Today in response to emailed questions. “My interest is with wood-biomass – wood chips, pellets, and cordwood. Each feedstock has a range of applications and devices.  So, a ‘good fit’ is situation-dependent. Nevertheless, the potential is huge.”

The United States, he writes, has an ample supply of trees (which, of course, can be buttressed by advanced agricultural techniques and, perhaps, the type of research Hazen is undertaking). Cook suggests that wood technology can be a good energy source for district energy approaches.

It is not a unitary segment. “The physical size of the facility (square feet) becomes important,” Cook wrote. “Home-sized buildings might be best served with pellet or cordwood systems. Access to natural gas plays into the situation. Pellets are cost-competitive with propane, fuel oil, and electric heat. Savings margins are greater for wood chips, even against natural gas. For larger spaces (maybe 50,000+ square feet), wood chip systems are more feasible. Cordwood systems are size-limited and depend on the owner/manager willingness to feed the boiler on a daily basis.”

Massachusetts seems to be a hotbed of wood pellet uptake. The Recorder, in Greenfield, reported earlier this month that the state’s “Wood Energy Team” took a road trip aimed at determining researching the topic:

The tour by more than a dozen representatives of regional and state agencies included visits to the pellet boiler system used at the John W. Olver Transportation Center in Greenfield, a private six-apartment building in Montague that include a wood pellet boiler, three new state-funded pellet boilers at Hawlemont Regional School and a wood-fired kiln system at Hall Tavern Farm’s sawmill.

While active, Massachusetts is not alone: Twenty-one other states have wood energy teams funded by the U.S. Forest Service, according to the story.

At this point, it seems, the United States is more a producer than a user. RISI Bioenergy Economist released a report earlier this month that found that Europe is the experiencing the fastest growth in the use of wood as an energy source. The U.S. indeed will be a big supplier, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration:

Over the next two years, ITA expects biomass pellet consumption in the top 10 U.S. export markets to average 21 billion kg annually. The United Kingdom, which continues to ramp up its use of biomass power, will account for over one-fourth of the total consumption globally and will represent the largest pellet market for the United States.

The use of wood for heating is a business in transition. It has potential that, to some extent, is being realized. It still has a small sector feel, however. The supply chain is not well established, especially for non-residential use. Interest is growing. “I think the lowest hanging fruit would be installing wood chip systems for facilities in excess of 50,000 or 75,000 square feet (similar to several schools in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan),” Cook wrote.

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