Wood pellet heating system in a school in Athens, NY. (Photo by Northern Forest Center)

Wood pellet heating system in a school in Athens, NY. (Photo by Northern Forest Center)

(Submitted by Jeremy Caggiano, Science and Technology Committee)

Northern Forest Center is a Concord, New Hampshire based nonprofit organization which advocates for the Northern Forest region and helps its communities benefit from forest-based economic and conservation initiatives. According to Northern Forest Center, the northeastern United States consumes over 80 percent of our nation’s supply of home heating oil, spending more than six billion dollars every year.

Over the last decade there have been tremendous improvements in wood product technologies both foreign and abroad. Technological advancement, unpredictable fuel costs and an increased public desire to live responsibly and sustainably has created emerging market opportunities. On April 6th, Mary Esch, of the Associated Press, reported that high-efficiency wood-pellet heating systems are growing in popularity in several northern states. More specifically it appears that as many municipal school systems need to upgrade or replace their aging heating systems they are choosing to convert to wood. In upstate New York, Athens Elementary School chose to make the switch from fossil fuel to a renewable wood pellet heat source. Athens Elementary School is not alone. According to The Alliance for Green Heat, what may be driving this rapid conversion are financial incentives; some of which include grants, low-interest loans, tax credits and training programs. In fact there are currently ten states that offer all or some combination of the aforementioned incentives. Now, rather than burning a fossil fuel, those with new wood heating systems may essentially be burning what was once considered wood waste.

In rural Northern Forest communities land owners conducting forest stand improvement treatments may be able to sell their low quality material to biomass procurement businesses like Curran Renewable Energy. Pat Curran, co-owner of Curran Renewable Energy based in Massena, New York believes that the biomass fuel industry is filling a void left by declines in the paper and board markets. It has allowed his company to expand to 116 employees. He stated, “At least half of the workforce is related to the biomass industry.” Curran Renewable Energy is an example of an economic wealth retention opportunity associated with the presence of an appropriately sized biomass industry.

Heating with locally sourced wood biomass creates jobs, may help mitigate the negative effects climate change, connects rural communities and helps forestland owners maintain a healthy forest landscape. That said, it is critical that a balance remains between availability of low quality material and a given biomass facility’s size. Overinvestment in this emerging market without a reliable outlet for saw timber and veneer can quickly result in redefining the concept of a tree’s financial maturity. In regions where biomass dominates the wood procurement industry incentive needs to remain for private and public forestland owners to continue growing high quality, mature trees.

New Jersey’s small and large woodland owners alike need access to markets interested in purchasing scalable quantities of low quality wood material. On public land it would be appropriate if, the income derived through responsible management, could be reinvested into the enhancement of other, lesser productive forests. Additionally, the federal tax credits associated with wood and pellet stoves, which ended in 2014, has resulted in many families and businesses converting to wood heat. In New Jersey, the desire to heat with wood coupled with substantial availability of low quality inputs is setting a similar stage to our neighboring Northern Forest communities. With the support of groups like the Northern Forest Center, investment in either a local or regional biomass facility in New Jersey may not be far off.

For the full article and other sources visit the Northern Forest Center’s Renewable Energy – Biomass webpage here: http://www.northernforest.org/renewable_energy.html