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Think Globally, Act Locally
Western loggers need to keep up with woody biomass progress around the world and be ready as opportunities arise here
By Barbara Coyner
When a local dentist built his new hilltop home, he installed a freestanding wood boiler in his backyard to heat his home and domestic water. According to him, it was old technology where he’d grown up in the Midwest. The system uses everything from waste wood to pellets to firewood, and because it is not in the house, it is regarded as being safer than an in-house woodstove.
Elsewhere in our area, an artist, an environmental activist, a violin maker, and a cabinet builder have all installed similar boiler systems, some relying on them for more than 20 years. In any of these scenarios, the residential households provide an example of woody biomass utilization at its most basic level — boiler-powered thermal energy.
Despite such a history of utilization, most U.S. government agencies are still studying, analyzing, and evaluating woody biomass as green and renewable. Google the Wikipedia entry on “woody biomass” and it is obvious that many misgivings still hamper that full-fledged endorsement. Not so in the United Kingdom, however.
The U.K. has pronounced woody biomass to be carbon neutral, ushering the way for entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and manufacturers to proceed with confidence. That means feed stocks such as pellets and various waste woods can be fine-tuned to deliver even heat and energy without becoming pollutants. It also means households and businesses can install boiler systems without fear that such capital improvements will one day be re-examined and penalized.
It is interesting to review some of the common questions the potential biomass-friendly British consumer has about installing a woody biomass boiler. The article referenced is appropriately called “Mythbusting Biomass for Businesses” and comes from a blog called Business Green. While the comments apply to boilers installed inside a building, they could easily apply to free-standing units outside the home or business. The information indicates how readily woody biomass is being integrated into UK energy strategies. Here are excerpts of some of the points made:
Biomass is no more environmentally friendly than fossil fuel: FALSE
Research suggests that biomass boilers will reduce net carbon emissions by 90 percent, which is great for the environment — and a massive improvement on widely used fossil fuels. Unlike traditional fossil fuels, biofuels emit no sulfur when burned, and so reduce acid rain.
Using wood biofuel means cutting down trees: TRUE/FALSE
Wood pellets are mainly produced from compressed sawdust and chippings from the parts of trees that cannot be used for timber or pulp, so these wood biofuels are made from resources that would otherwise go to waste. Some wood pellets are produced from direct felling of trees within Forest Stewardship Council approved woodlands that are fully sustainable and responsibly managed for the purpose of biomass. Often these are thinnings or weaker trees that need to be removed to improve the viability of the woodland.
Biomass boilers are a nightmare to install and maintain: FALSE
With the right expertise, biomass boilers can easily be fitted into existing plumbing systems and are an excellent retrofit technology. Biomass boilers do require a flue, but if the building has a chimney, this can usually be lined to accommodate the system. The systems run quietly and are easy to maintain; the consumer only needs to empty the ash every few weeks.
You need planning permission to get a biomass boiler: TRUE
If the existing chimney can’t be used as a flue, the customer may need to apply for planning permission for the erection of a flue. Flues for biomass boilers are generally considered ‘Permitted Development’ and, as such, it is unusual for them to be rejected. (Remember, this is in the UK, and attitudes might be different in parts of the U.S.) Planning Permission might also be required for any external purpose-built structures such as fuel stores or plant rooms. The level of planning permission required is similar to that required for a shed or garage.
Slow, Steady Progress
Even though the U.S. has not adopted similar attitudes about woody biomass yet, lots of loggers in the West have been getting ready. Many contractors already have chippers or masticating heads, although some will tell you they don’t always reap financial benefits from being able to chip forest residue. In fact, loggers often complain that the woody biomass just piles up because there is no nearby outlet for it.
As a Mississippi plant recently announced its plans to make gasoline from wood, it remains clear that there is some progress. As westerners have watched the Midwest drought pit livestock operators against ethanol producers, it has become more obvious that the public doesn’t like using feedstock for fuel instead of food. It’s a strong hunch that the corn ethanol legislation is likely to be reviewed, perhaps making woody biomass more attractive as an alternative.
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