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Olive Grove

Resources

First, full disclosure: I’m the general manager of New England Wood Pellet in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. Our company has a financial interest in seeing the use of biomass pellet fuels grow in the Northeastern U.S.

This region is blessed with a valuable natural resource – its forests. If we use these forests sustainably, they can provide for our economic and ecological well-being. Voices across the region, including that of Northern Woodlands, have been echoing this truth for years. But what is the best economic use of this resource?

Energy consumption in America can be roughly divided into thirds: one third electric power, one third transportation, and one third heat (and cooling). Policy makers in Washington, D.C., and at the state level seem preoccupied with strategies to promote the use of biomass to make electric power and transportation fuels; I’d argue that they’re overlooking the much more efficient and economically beneficial use of biomass – heat.

Efficiency is important because biomass supply is finite. Through nearly three decades of development of a biomass electric power industry, the issue of sustainability of this resource for energy development has been largely overlooked or given short shrift by wood supply studies that in my opinion tended to overestimate the availability of the resource. Now with the eyes of the nation on our energy challenge, and much attention on biomass as a major part of the solution, the supply issue is getting new attention.

A spate of studies across the region shows that the capacity of our forests to provide biomass for large scale energy development is limited. Recently, the North Country Council (northern New Hampshire's regional planning commission) looked at long-term biomass supply in a procurement radius centered in Berlin, New Hampshire. It estimated that North Country forests can sustainably yield approximately 600,000 green tons of biomass per year for new energy demand, given all the other demands on this wood resource and the biological limits of our forests. Yet there are proposals for new energy projects that would require more than twice this amount of wood from the same procurement area. Studies in Vermont and Maine have also demonstrated the relatively limited potential for our forest resource to sustainably provide for large new energy demands.

These studies beg the question: what is the highest and best use of this finite resource? One approach is to look at the relative efficiencies of converting biomass into useable energy. Biomass electric generation operates at roughly 15-25 percent efficiency (meaning that 75-85 percent of the energy in the wood is lost as waste heat). Cellulosic ethanol production from wood converts at roughly 35-45 percent efficiency. Heat, on the other hand, can be derived from biomass at efficiencies exceeding 70 percent. Combined heat and power plants (the fuel is burned to produce both heat and electricity), especially those where the size of the project is scaled to the heat needs of a community center, a college campus, or a major industrial center, can achieve efficiencies also approaching 70 percent.

If sustainability of our forest resource is important, it makes sense to start by using this resource as efficiently as we possibly can. We simply do not have the luxury to support stand-alone biomass electric-generating facilities that send three-quarters of the energy from this finite resource into the atmosphere as a plume of steam.

Much has also been said about the need for upgrades to the electric transmission grid in northern New England, where most of the large biomass electric plants are being proposed. These upgrades are necessary to convey power from the rural North Country, where it would be produced, to urban southern New England, where most of it would be used. The cost of such upgrades is staggering – now estimated to exceed $200 million in New Hampshire alone. Is this the best use of hundreds of millions of taxpayer or rate-payer dollars? I believe it would be more beneficial to help people and communities tighten building envelopes and convert their heating needs from volatile imported oil, propane, and natural gas to locally produced, clean-burning, chip, pellet, or energy-crop central heating systems. Central heating, community-scale district heating, and combined heat and power technology (cogeneration) is advancing rapidly in Europe and elsewhere and is available today.

We have a choice: we can squander this precious resource to make electricity at unacceptably low efficiencies, or we can use it to make heat and combined heat and power at far greater efficiencies.

I urge North Country policy leaders to take a hard look at this choice, and
consider the enormous potential to heat the North Country with its own resources. Ours is the only region in the United States that largely relies on oil for heat. By converting biomass energy to heat instead of electricity, we’d be creating more local jobs, we’d help achieve energy security through energy independence, and and a citizenry far more connected to the forest - and far more likely to insist on its responsible management. In my view, the choice is clear.

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