by John Ackerly, President of the Alliance for Green Heat
reprinted from Biomass Magazine
Many in the biomass heating movement bemoan warm winters, low fossil fuel prices and the slow pace of conversions to biomass heating systems. But systems are being put in place to adopt renewable heating and that we can be part of, but we are not.
Scores of cities across the US and Canada have already pledged to go 100% renewable. Even more will be announcing their plans in the next year or two. Some cities are only focusing on 100% renewable electricity, but many are adopting a two stage approach. The first stage addresses electricity needs while the second stage addresses heating.
Take Portland, Oregon, Hanover, New Hampshire and East Hampton, New York. Portland is shooting for 100% renewable electricity by 2035 and plans to tackle heating from 2035 to 2050. Hanover is planning for 100% renewable electricity by 2030 and 100% renewable heating by 2050. East Hampton, NY is moving even faster: 100% renewable electricity by 2020 and 100% renewable heating by 2030. Much of this heating will be fueled by electricity but chip and pellet systems could also be in demand.
A parallel trend is the Zero Net Energy (ZNE) movement. To be considered a ZNE building, a house, There is no one accepted definition of ZNE, so cities, campuses and communities have some leeway in how they define it. A strict definition says biomass has to be grown and harvested on-site, but other definitions could include biomass harvested from within 30 miles, for example. After all, the sun isn’t on-site either but the energy from it is produced on-site.
The point is that aggressive renewable energy strategies need to address heating and if the biomass community is not at the table, we may be left out of policies and definitions. The Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association has been at the table in some instances, but they are mostly fighting with the natural gas industry against gas restrictions in ZNE initiatives.
The Biomass Thermal Energy Council (BTEC) is a natural leader for this type of advocacy, as they represent industry players that heat buildings and campuses. This advocacy is not cheap and could easily require a full time person to engage with all the organizations and agencies involved in these movements. But this would be an investment in the future that would pay dividends over the next 10 – 20 years.
The renewable electricity movement is taking off because laws require utilities to sell or produce a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable sources. The mandates typically increase until a target year, such as 20% renewables by 2020, or 25% renewables by 2025. Legislatures can do this because state-level public service commissions (PSCs) have authority over public and private utilities. But why don’t we regulate the heating grid the same way as we regulate the electric grid?
Piped gas is just like electricity in many respects and is regulated in many of the same ways, but are there any gas companies required to ensure that 20% of their BTUs are renewable by 2020? If gas companies had to install some percentage of their business as geothermal, solar thermal or biomass thermal, the renewable thermal sector would develop quickly, just as renewable electricity has. Gas companies could install the systems themselves, just like utilities can install their own wind turbines or solar farms, or buy renewable energy credits from companies who build and operate them.
During these Trump years, federal policy and funding of renewables will dwindle, but that is making some states, cities and campuses even more motivated to push forward. Renewable heating is part of the equation, but are we at the table?
(This article is reprinted from Biomass Magazine. The Biomass Magazine version had a slight error in the text.)