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
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.
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.
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 multi-systemic and 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.