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An introduction to Community Wood Energy, technologies, project development and resources.

 

Welcome to the Virginia Community Wood Energy Guide.  A tremendous amount of information about wood energy is available from wood energy equipment and service providers, non-profits, universities and state agencies.  This guide assembles and annotates that information to help potential wood energy users get started.

Introduction to Community Wood Energy

Wood fuels are unique among renewable energy sources in that they offer flexibility in storage, transportation and utilization upon demand.  Community wood energy is the use of wood fuels for heating and powering public buildings, business and homes.  Community-scale wood energy is energy generated where it is utilized, with local resources supplied by members of the community.  Community-scale wood energy is about people knowing where their energy comes from.

Wood fuels, also called biomass, are arguably mankind’s oldest source of energy.  Biomass is defined in the Virginia Code as “organic material available on a renewable or recurring basis”.   Specifically, woody biomass is defined as:

  • Forest-related materials, including mill residues, logging residues, forest thinnings, slash, brush, low-commercial value materials or undesirable species, and woody material harvested for the purpose of forest fire fuel reduction or forest health and watershed improvement,
  • Solid woody waste materials, including landscape trimmings, waste pallets, crates and manufacturing, construction, and demolition wood wastes, excluding pressure-treated, chemically treated or painted wood wastes and wood contaminated with plastic;,
  • Crops and trees planted for the purpose of being used to produce energy.

The concept of a Community Wood Energy Program was codified in the 2008 Farm Bill and was continued in the 2014 Farm Bill, but unfortunately does not enjoy mandatory funding. Non-the-less the promotion of institutional wood energy has expanded in a number of states through Fuels-for-Schools programs (Vermont, Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Montana) and the U.S. Forest Service’s Statewide Wood Energy Teams.  Additional information and resources for community-scale woody biomass energy is available through the US Forest Services’ Wood Education and Resource Center, Vermont’s Biomass Energy Resource Center (BERC), and advocacy organizations such as the Alliance for Green Heat and the Biomass Thermal Energy Council.

Institutional Wood Energy in Virginia – Why not?

The scientific, economic and anecdotal evidence to support the use of wood fuels for thermal energy is widely available, yet most Virginians are unaware that wood heat is feasible on an institutional scale. Why is that – a lack of information, misinformation, or something more?

The Virginia Community Wood Energy Program (VCWEP) explored potential barriers to increased thermal energy in rural Virginia through conversations and questionnaires with potential users operating public and private facilities. Those conversations offered the following insights to perceived barriers and potential opportunities regarding the state of community wood energy in the Commonwealth.

Individual Perception Barriers to Wood Energy

Cost

Although few interviewed disputed the actual cost advantage of wood versus conventional heating fuels, the cost of boiler conversion and the on-going personnel costs of operating biomass boilers were recurring concerns.  Over the last 45 years, the real price of wood energy has actually declined. Woodchip prices have increased at less than the rate of general inflation over the decades, unlike oil and gas prices.

The boilers needed for biomass heating varies, depending on the type of fuel. Biomass boilers do require additional storage and handling equipment compared to conventional liquid and gas fuels, but the fuel cost savings realized using biomass fuel pays for the boiler conversion costs.

Modern biomass boilers are commercially available for use in schools, office buildings, hospitals, and other institutions. They utilize automatic feed systems and advanced computerized controls to maximize the efficiency and performance of the equipment, minimizing operating costs, including personnel.

Supply

The latest research out of Virginia Tech shows that the forests of Virginia are growing at least twice as fast as they are being harvested. Virginia supports over 180 saw, chip, pulp and pellet mills that produce sawdust, wood chips and pellets as a primary or by-product. Even so, the reliable supply of chips or pellets was a concern.

In fact, wood chips are a commonly sold commodity for pulp and paper production, and Virginia is currently exporting the majority of the wood pellets produced here to New England states and European countries, because the demand is there. Increased local demand would keep energy dollars local and reduce the carbon footprint associated with exporting.

Consulting foresters are available throughout the Commonwealth, who can help locate sources of fuel and negotiate supply contracts. Farm-based biomass fuels (native grasses and timber) are another growing sector of the supply market. By increasing local demand, farmers are offered an option that creates new markets and revenues, and may consequently save open land from development, in addition to keeping energy dollars local.

Environmental

Concerns about potential air pollution and deforestation were commonly expressed environmental concerns.

In fact, commercial-scale boilers are able to combust biomass cleanly, with no visible smoke or odor, thanks to computer controls and other developments. Biomass combustors are permitted by Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and must meet all requirements for air quality. Woodchip boilers with modern emission controls have virtually no visible emissions or odors and emit far less particulate matter (PM) than home wood stoves.

Burning wood for energy also has a positive impact in moderating global climate change. Carbon dioxide (CO2 ) buildup in the atmosphere is a significant cause of global climate change. Fossil fuel combustion takes carbon that was locked away underground (as crude oil and gas) and transfers it to the atmosphere as CO2. When wood is burned, however, it recycles carbon that was already in the natural carbon cycle. Consequently, the net effect of burning wood fuel is that no new CO2 is added to the atmosphere.

Using waste products from sawmills and timber harvest for wood fuel offers a productive use for low-grade woody material. Sawdust and wood chips from sawmills are a waste that must be disposed of and are typically sold. Biomass removal after harvest operations generate additional revenue from material that would otherwise be open burned for disposal or left to decay. Improving forest health through thinning, invasive species management, and wildfire fuel load reduction operations comes at a cost to landowners. Wood fuel markets can generate additional revenue from timber harvests for landowners, or at the very least offset the cost of forest health operations, thereby incentivizing landowners to actively manage their forests and to keep their forestlands as forest. Rather than causing deforestation, the sustainable removal of biomass will improve overall forest health and reduce the incidence of uncontrollable, devastating fires.

Systemic Barriers to Community Wood Energy

Since wood has been a source of heat for generations, most everyone is familiar with domestic wood heat, and many understand that biomass is a viable energy source for institutions and public facilities. Facility managers interviewed were generally aware that modern technologies allow for boilers to deliver safe, efficient and reliable heat. However, many public officials were unaware of the potential for biomass energy to improve community wellbeing through the creation of sustainable, local jobs that consequently contribute to healthy forests and diversified wildlife.

Institutional wood energy is a multisystemic, community-based alternative that impacts local economies, ecology and society. Everyone is understandably interested in utilizing fuels that save on the costs of heating; however, the economic benefits of keeping energy dollars within the community through sustainable jobs that also protect our environment strike chords throughout the community, including municipal planners and local leaders. Although the stable cost of wood per BTU over the past 45 years alone offers fiscal incentive, the added value created when wood energy is viewed systemically adds significantly to the overall savings.

Community systems begin with people – the systems reflect the needs of the people and once created, systems impact the lives of citizens within that system. Energy is often viewed as an external, uncontrollable cost, and energy choices are often a reaction to current although volatile markets and supply availability. Once energy consumption is viewed as a conscientious measure taken to improve the overall health and wellbeing of local citizens, environment and economy, the benefits are more than economic and indeed redefine costs/savings systemically.

A primary barrier to the increased use of thermal energy in rural Virginia may then be our incomplete picture of this community resource within the context of community systems. Perhaps we need to “re-package” energy as it relates to the whole community. For instance, while community planners are focused on generating jobs to boost local economies by adding businesses, sustainable jobs may be a natural byproduct of their energy systems. However, planners are typically not involved in discussions and decisions regarding local energy options. Likewise, county administrators are charged with managing multiple systems within a community, but may not play a major role in determining the heating systems for their schools. School superintendents typically defer to facilities and maintenance managers to recommend the best options for their schools, but they may not be charged to take into consideration how that system impacts the larger community.

The benefits and savings of modern thermal energy run deeper than the traditional analysis of cost per BTU. Communities are multisystemic – energy is yet another gear within a system that generates community well-being. Thermal energy offers more than an economically stable energy source. Sustainable jobs, healthier forests, cleaner air and a more diversified wildlife may be welcomed side-effects that not only reduce costs but contribute to healthier citizens.

Social, environmental and economic impacts of using wood for fuel

There are many benefits to using locally grown and sustainably harvested wood fuels over conventional fossil fuels.  The principal reason for using wood is economic – levelized energy costs of wood fuels in Virginia are 4 to 6 times less expensive than fuel oil, propane or electricity, and have been consistently so for several decades!  Even better, energy dollars spent on locally produced wood fuels stay and circulate in the local economy supporting jobs in the community.

1970-2015 VA Levelized Energy PricesFor a quick overview of the many benefits see BERC’s Benefits of Using Woodchip Heating for Schools and Communities fact sheet.   For concern about what comes out of the smoke stack see their Air Emissions from Modern Wood Energy Systems and their Carbon Dioxide and Biomass Energy factsheets.  More in-depth examination of the benefits that can accrue from switching to wood fuels can be found in Dovetail Partner’s Community-Based Bioenergy and District Heating.

Examples of Wood Energy from Virginia and beyond

 Modern Wood Energy Technologies

Like the wood stoves of old, most modern wood energy systems are based on combustion technology.  Unlike the old wood stoves, modern woody biomass systems are clean, efficient and can be fully automated.  Woody biomass fuels are typically delivered by truck into a storage bin and then augured directly into the boiler, keeping the boiler room free of dust and dirt.  Smaller-scale systems can be completely automated, providing institutions lower cost, hassle-free heat with virtually no change in labor requirements.

Wood fuels come in a variety of forms and qualities, presenting users a number of factors to consider.  Woody biomass systems can be engineered to handle multiple fuel types, which offers flexibility and insurance if an opportunity fuel becomes available or the preferred fuel is temporarily not, however the trade-off is increased capital costs.  Cleaner (no bark, soil or leaves) and dryer fuels have a greater recoverable energy content and with lower emissions and ash production, however, handling and processing increases the delivered price.  Also, the more processed the fuel, the more uniform the shape and size, making handling easier.  For an introduction to wood boiler systems, clear descriptions and specifications of wood chip fuels and a detailed look at institutional and commercial-scale wood chips systems, see:

For wood pellet systems and fuels, see:

For residential heating see:

Supply, availability and sustainability

Surveying the supply and determining availability of woody biomass fuels is an essential component of the project feasibility study.  Availability includes both the economic cost of extracting, transporting, processing and delivery of the material as well as the social willingness of the community to supply.  Once a delivered price has been determined the United States Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory Fuel Value Calculator can be used to compare prices.

Smaller wood energy users will most likely contract with a fuel supplier for a guaranteed supply while larger facilities may be willing to take on managing their own supply chain.  The Forest Guild and the Pinochet Institute for Conservation have produced four short videos exploring sustainable forest biomass harvesting and use from four different perspectives – the end user, forest management, conservation and environmental protection and the policy angle: Harvesting Guidelines.  Also available from the Forest Guild is Harnessing the Power of Local Wood Energy – Ensuring a sustainable supply of wood chips for your school (A community resource guide).

Project Development

Key characteristics of successful projects include an organization with a committed community member who will champion the project for energy costs savings and/or environmental benefit.  The University of Minnesota’s Community Biomass Handbook  provides guidance, case studies and tools, including their easy-to-use Wood Energy Financial App, for assisting users’ through the initial stages of project development.  The EPA’s Combined Heat and Power Partnership is a resource for larger intuitions and communities looking to reduce energy costs and the environmental impacts of their power generation.

Fuel switching from a conventional to a woody biomass fuel (or including a biomass system in a green field project) is a multi-stage processes.  Initial screening will determine if it makes economic and technical sense at the location.  Preliminary feasibility considers the organizational goals and potential barriers that will need to be overcome to determine if a woody biomass heating system is a good economic and technical fit for the location.  The feasibility stage (preliminary engineering) determines the design and operation of the system for pricing and return on investment.  Procurement is where final engineering takes place, financing is secured, any required permits are obtained and the system components are ordered, delivered, installed and commissioned.  The final stage is operation and maintenance, where cost savings are realized.  Labor for operation and maintenance of a solid fuel system can be expected to be greater than a conventional fuel system, the extent of which should be determined during the pre-feasibility stage.

VA DEQ Permitting

In 2013 Virginia approved a Permit by Rule (PBR) for small biomass combustion electricity generating facilities (less than 5 MW).  Virginia does not require an air permit for biomass combustion if the unit is less than 1,000,000 Btu per hour or if the uncontrolled emissions are below the criteria pollutant exemptions levels.  If not exempt the facility has the option of obtaining permitting though the Minor New Source Review (NSR) Program, or a Biomass Pilot Test Facility General Permit.  DEQ’s Combustion Based Energy page provides links to the legislation, and PBR Overview and a Permit Guide.

Financing

Financing for woody biomass projects exist in a variety of forms and sources.  State and federal grants and loan guarantees can help to offset the cost of a project or secure a competitive rate from a private or public bank.  Investment funds or fuel providers or energy servicing companies (ESCO’s) may be other sources of financing.  Another avenue worth exploring is what is referred to as the BOO model – a company will Build, Own, and Operate a biomass-fueled system on site and enter into a contract to sell the energy (hot water, hot air, electrons, etc.)  Depending on the situation this model can be attractive as the contracted company assumes responsibility for operation, maintenance and uninterrupted service and the user only pays for what they consume.  Similarly, a wood pellet manufacturer or similar fuel supplier might be willing to underwrite the installation of a system if they are confident they will have a long-term customer.  The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has compiled an extensive list of Financial Resources for Ag & Forestry Businesses in Virginia.

Additional Online Resources

State Agencies and Universities

National Agencies

NGOs

Across the Pond – Biomass Heating in the United Kingdom