Friday, June 28, 2013

Renewable Left Out of Heating Fuel Price Reports

For many years, the federal and state governments have issued monthly reports on the prices of fuels including winter heating fuels so that consumers, businesses, and the media have accurate information. Traditionally, this has meant prices of fossil fuels – oil, natural gas, propane, etc. Recently four states started to provide price information on a renewable fuel – wood pellets: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine.

Advocates for renewable energy say it’s been a hard sell to get government bureaucracies to add wood pellets to their price reports. The most important reports come from the Energy Information Agency (EIA), which is part of the Department of Energy (DOE). However, the EIA collects their data from states, and unless states report on pellet prices, they say they can’t include it in federal reports.

State energy offices are stretched thin and some say they can’t take the extra work of including a fuel that may have more price fluctuations and not as many major retailers who can provide the price information. In New York, the New York Biomass Energy Alliance, a trade association is undertaking research and surveys to help the state start reporting on pellet prices. Other states where wood and pellets are a widespread heating fuel include Pennsylvania, the Great Lake states, and the Pacific Northwest.

Fossil fuels have received extensive government subsidies over the decades, but advocates of wood pellets say that these price reports can be seen as an informational subsidy. As federal and state agencies switch gears to include more information about renewable energy, this may result in less staff time spent on fossil fuels.

A example of this is a high profile report the EIA puts out every fall called the “Winter Fuel Outlook.” This annual report had never mentioned a word about firewood and pellets, America’s third most common heating fuel until last year. The report has always had extensive information about heating fuels, such as oil and propane, that provide fewer Btus to US homes than wood and pellets provide. The Alliance for Green Heat, Hearth & Home Technologies, New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen and others pressed EIA to also include renewable fuels. The report did include some information about wood and pellets and EIA is likely going to increase their coverage in the 2013 report. Visit this page to read more on the EIA’s winter fuel outlook. 

A coalition of non-profit and industry groups is starting to call on state energy offices to urge them to include pellet and wood prices in their monthly reports. Below are details and links to the four states that currently report on pellet prices.

New Hampshire’s Office of Energy and Planning compares both wood pellets and cordwood to other fuel types such as natural gas, propane, and gasoline. The price/unit; heat content/unit (Btu); and price per million Btu are all compared between the different fuel types. The data is supposedly published weekly with the latest update being June 3rd, 2013. The website will also have historical fuel price data as well. The OEP notes that the price of firewood sold by the cord can vary widely depending on the location, time of year and quality of the wood being sold.

Vermont’s Public Service Department compares BTU/unit, efficiency, $/unit, and $/MMBtu between wood pellets, green cordwood, fuel oil, natural gas, propane, etc. The data is compiled into monthly reports from 01/08 to 06/13. Prices are collected on or about the first Monday of each month and reflect dealer discounts for cash or self-service. The cord wood information has not been updated since 11/11.

Maine’s Governor’s Energy Office conducts a weekly survey of fuel prices during the peak season between October and March. Information on the price of cordwood and wood pellets has been archived since October 9, 2012. The survey is released monthly during the rest of the year. It reports the weekly price averages of oil as compared to natural gas, propane, wood pellets, cordwood, and electricity.

Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs website provides detailed monthly fuel price averages of heating oil, propane, gasoline and diesel. For pellets, it only provides links to third party websites. These websites, of which is the most comprehensive, compile wood pellet retailers in Massachusetts, their contact information, the brands of pellets they sell, the corresponding price, and the date the price was last updated.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Prof. Hopke Becomes Judge of Wood Stove Design Challenge

Professor Philip Hopke, of Clarkson University, has become the 10th judge of the Wood Stove Design Challenge. Dr. Hopke is the Bayard D. Clarkson Distinguished Professor at Clarkson, the Director of the Center for Air Resources Engineering and Science (CARES), and the Director of the Institute for a Sustainable Environment (ISE).

For the past 5 years, he has been actively studying solid fuel combustion systems with an emphasis on emissions and efficiency. “We can take advantage of our large wood resources if it can be burned more cleanly,” Prof. Hopke said. Clarkson University is located in northern New York, surrounded by communities that heavily rely on wood and pellet heating.

As a Jefferson Science Fellow at the U.S. Department of State in 2008-09, he advised the Department on strategies to support the development of cleaner wood cook stoves in the developing world. In that capacity, he also worked with Prof. Kirk Smith of University of California Berkeley who is also a judge in the Wood Stove Design Challenge.

Dr. Hopke is also the past Chair of EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), and has served on the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB).

Professor Hopke received his B.S. in Chemistry from Trinity College (Hartford) and his M.A. Ph.D. degrees in chemistry from Princeton University and had a post-doctoral appointment at M.I.T

For more information on the Wood Stove Design Challenge and the judges, click here:

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Senators Propose Adding Wood and Pellet Heat to Renewable Energy Incentives

For years, homeowners have enjoyed a 30% tax credit on the cost of installing solar panels on their home or adding geothermal heat.  In Europe, virtually every country also includes automated, high efficiency pellet stoves and boilers. Why hasn’t it happened here?

Senators Angus King (I-ME), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) introduced the Biomass Thermal Utilization (BTU) Act to do just that. The tax credit for solar panels has disproportionately benefited wealthy urban and suburban residents, who can already afford fossil fuel energy, but want to help the planet. By adding tax credits for modern wood and pellet stoves, you benefit a more rural demographic that is not necessarily trying to be “green” but who are merely wanting to use a more affordable fuel than fossil fuels to heat their homes. 

Congress can pick and choose which technology it wants to favor, and which demographic it wants to favor.  But a more technology neutral approach has many benefits and the case for high-efficiency wood and pellet appliances is a strong one: it displaces about the same amount of fossil fuel as the average solar panel installation. Wood and pellet stoves have a shorter payback period, which makes it more likely that a middle-income family chooses a pellet stove. The technology is less expensive thus it costs the tax-payer far less to displace the same amount of fossil fuel. Utilizing thermal biomass helps ordinary families without access to natural gas that struggle to pay high heating bills. The BTU Act extends technology options to low and middle income families.

The BTU Act will add a provision to include biomass fuels to the list of existing technologies that qualify for the residential renewable energy investment tax credit in Section 25d of the Internal Revenue Code. To qualify, the property utilizing biomass fuel must operate at a thermal efficiency rate of at least 75% HHV and be used to either heat space within the dwelling or to heat water. The BTU Act allows for both wood and pellet appliances to be eligible but the 75% higher heating value (HHV) means that only the most clean and efficient ones will be incentivized.

The justification for solar subsidies is not just the displacement of fossil fuel, but also to help an emerging technology off the ground so that it can be cost competitive without subsidies.  Pellet stoves and boilers need a similar boost.  The higher up front cost of a pellet stove or boiler is a major deterrent and until there is greater demand, when the per unit cost is likely to drop. Like solar, there needs to be a more robust infrastructure to permit, install and repair the appliances.  Over 10 million Americans use wood or pellet stoves to heat their homes but only perhaps 20% have modern high efficiency appliances that do not emit smoke. If our country is to switch to modern, clean, high efficiency wood and pellet heating, we need to incentivize those appliances.  Our current approach is not working.

Urge your Senator to become a sponsor of the BTU Act, click here:

For more information: BTEC link