The term biomass as it relates to alternative energy means different things to different people. Many will think about corn based ethanol or the experimental efforts to produce cost competitive cellulosic ethanol. Others might think about burning wood chips to generate electric power. However, the most efficient and sustainable use of renewable biomass uses the complex, but well known biomass chemical conversion process known as fire for producing heat or combined heat and power (CHP).
While fire certainly isn’t forgotten, its ability to tap the sun’s stored energy in trees and other plants is often taken for granted. Today’s modern boilers, furnaces, and stoves are working quietly in the basements and boiler rooms of buildings around the countryside producing many billions of renewable British Thermal Units (BTU). For readers who tend to think about renewable energy only in Kilowatt hours, a Kilowatt hour is approximately 3,400 BTU. A cord of Northern hardwood contains about 20 million BTU, depending on the species. This means that a cord of wood contains just less than 6000 Kilowatt hours of energy. This is the equivalent of about a 10 month supply of electricity for an average New England household. That’s powerful. It turns out that plants and trees are amazingly effective at solar conversion and storage, that is, if they are used sustainably.
Today’s biomass heating machines are one of our most forgotten or at least misunderstood alternative energy technologies. What is so great about these new machines? To start with, there is no other biomass technology that comes close to an 85% total efficiency. As with other known renewable energy technologies, biomass heating won’t fill all of our needs, but it can play an important role. According to “Heating the Northeast with Renewable Biomass” www.biomassthermal.org it is possible to convert 18.5% of Northeast homes to biomass heating sustainably. It is important to note that this is probably not possible with low conversion efficiencies as are realized when wood is burned to produce power.
The new biomass machines also produce very few harmful aerosol particulates compared to old stoves, fireplaces, and outdoor boilers that have become synonymous with wood burning. Automation has made the newest appliances adequate replacements, not adjuncts, but replacements for oil and gas appliances.
In New Hampshire and Vermont about 465 Million gallons of heating oil are used each year. At $3.65/gallon, that equates to just over 1 Billion dollars per year, of which nearly 800 Million dollars are exported out of the United States. In these economic times, wouldn’t it be nice to have those dollars back at home creating thousands of jobs? Due to the hidden nature of biomass heating appliances, they will have a hard time competing with solar and wind as a visible badge of greenmanship. For those who appreciate the benefits of using a local fuel, creating local jobs, enhancing the value of forestland, and most importantly, saving money, biomass heating is a smart choice for discerning environmental stewards.