New Turn for Town?

Biomass energy has a number of questions associated with it, probably more so than answers. White Mountain’s Community College hosted a forum Thursday night to try to tackle some of those questions, with panelists from UNH, Clean Power, BEDCO and other places. The resulting discussion far from answered all questions, but it might resolve the issue for Berlin.
Here is the argument laid out at the meeting. And keep in mind, this isn’t just industry people — the panel included people interested in sustainable environmental practices and forestry. Not every view was represented, but this wasn’t a biomass press conference.
Biomass can mean many things. Burning wood for heat is biomass; so is burning wood for electricity. These two are not created equal: thermal production is 75 to 80 percent efficient, while electricity production is 20 to 25 percent efficient. That means if you have four pieces of wood, you waste one making heat, or you waste three making electricity. Seems clear which you’d choose, right?
Sort of. Northern NH has a need for heat. Home heating oil costs Americans roughly $3 billion a year. That’s $3 billion that is sent overseas instead of pumped into the local economy. By using a biomass plant to generate heat communities can support their local loggers, reduce dependence on foreign oil, reduce carbon output (wood burns cleaner), be more efficient and save money.
What it takes is a community cooperative, where pipes are laid like like for sewer or water to everyone’s house, that taps into the thermal generation capacity of a large scale biomass plant.
But heat isn’t all people need — they need electricity also. By coupling these two together it is possible to achieve something close to 50 percent efficiency. That is the idea with Clean Power.
What they would do is make electricity their primary focus, but thermal production would be a part of their operation. The executive director of the Biomass Energy Resource Center said making the thermal output the primary focus results in the best efficiency, but Clean Power is looking for profit, not just efficiency. By coupling the two they will get reasonable efficiency, two logs out of four, and good profits.
They’ll have excess heat though, and Berlin can harness that. What’s more, it’s hard to store electricity. Batteries don’t do a great job of it — that’s why electric cars can’t go nearly as far as gas powered cars. But it is easy to store hot water, and through it thermal energy. A couple silo sized thermoses would create heat reserves for the entire city. There are also ways to create refrigeration with heat pumps (beyond me but sounded cool) for food storage and using the water for snow removal by laying radiant floor heating in parking lots and melting the snow as it falls. The possibilities are being explored in Europe, according to the Northeast District Energy Corporation, and they are working to bring them here.

What would it do to the forests? And to the loggers? Those questions are hard to answer. The paper industry is down and demand for building materials is close to zero, so right not wood looks like a cheap resource. Another market would be great for the loggers. But those markets could turn around and it’s hard to predict what that would mean. The biomass facility would burn the tops and limbs of trees, and those trees not valuable for production. They might also plant fast-growing trees on unused farmland to increase the volume of material without affecting the market for pulpwood or the wood destined to become for lumber. However the loggers would need to figure out ways to defray some initial cost of investment for things like chippers to turn the waste wood into usable material. A couple ideas were floated around, like creating co-operatives or having a chipper at the biomass plant to encourage smaller scale loggers to get involved.
The forests are hard to judge, but Clean Power reduced the size of their plant because they didn’t want to overbuild as compared to the capacity of the land. They only want to get wood from within 30 miles of the plant because trucking costs and emissions would be prohibitive from further away. How much wood is there in that range? No one can answer that exactly, and it would be hard to tell without the plant in operation what the overall impact would be. Speakers stressed sustainable harvest practices and how important they are to the continued success of the plant; it doesn’t do any good to have a biomass plant and no wood left around to fuel it.

I could continue. It was one of the most informative two and a half hours I’ve ever been to, and by the end my head hurt. Maybe I can touch on the wood markets at a later time. But biomass answers made it seem like the questions are worth asking. Can the city handle two plants? Again still a question. Can it integrate the community heating program and invest in the appropriate infrastructure to get the full value from the facility? Again, it isn’t clear. But it would change Berlin from a city in the darkness to the forefront of the green energy movement in a matter of years if it happened. All while remaining “the city that trees built.”

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