A wood pellet mill in upstate New York. Credit: Wild Center / Creative Commons

While forestry industry advocates push to overturn New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu’s veto of a bill to provide price supports for biomass plants, some experts say more widespread use of pellet stoves could help find new uses for low-grade wood products.

Sununu vetoed SB365 in June, citing concerns about high electric costs in the state, where residential rates are 50% higher than the national average. “These bills send our state in exactly the wrong direction,” the governor said in a news release.

Jasen Stock, executive director of the NH Timberland Owners Association, called the veto “misguided and misinformed.” Stock regards biomass operations as a critical component of forest management, providing a market for low-grade wood amid a decline of pulp and paper making in the region.

While Stock and other advocates, including the NH Sustainable Energy Association, also raise concerns about replacing electricity generation from the plants, a key reason for the bill was maintaining balance in the state’s wood industry.

Impacts on the wood industry

While representing only 3.5% of landowner timber revenue, chipped wood destined for biomass plants accounts for 40% of tonnage cut. Although the vast majority of harvest value is in logs sold for lumber and processing, getting those out of the woods requires handling lower value timber and waste.

“The challenge we face finding viable markets for low-grade wood is not going to go away,” said Charlie Niebling, forest industry consultant for Innovative Resource Solutions, LLC (INRS), Concord, New Hampshire. Like Stock, Niebling is concerned about good forest management practices, which can lead to more valuable timber harvests over time after lesser quality wood is removed.

In a forested state like New Hampshire, with 83% tree cover, management is critical for landowners — and the forest products industry generates significant economic activity and provides tax revenue to rural communities.

Niebling proposes a solution to the low-grade wood conundrum — heat. The Northeast is one of the few regions in the U.S. still significantly dependent on heating oil, which is not produced there. He estimates that state residents use 250-300 million gallons each winter. To put supply in perspective, Niebling said that 1/3 the wood burned by Berlin’s 75 MW biomass plant would heat 11,000 homes.

In New Hampshire, the use of wood heat almost doubled between 2000 and 2010, due to sharply soaring oil prices. Despite price moderation since, pellet proponents hope to see continued conversion from part-time back-up to whole-house heating.

“We see lots of opportunity for growth,” said Bob Latour, plant manager for New England Wood Pellet in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, which produces 80,000 tons annually from chipped logs. Founded in 1995, the company has since expanded to four mills throughout the Northeast, with all output sold in the region.

However, the cost of converting from oil to pellet systems, which can run $12,000 and higher, presents a significant barrier for many homeowners. Bailey says that state rebates and low-interest loans, such as Vermont’s heat saver program, can make the investment easier on budgets. At this time, New Hampshire doesn’t have a comparable financing program, which might incentivize the transition.

A pollution trade-off?

Whether wood pellets provide a net environmental benefit over fuel oil or other sources is a topic of considerable debate.

Wood burned for heat is far more efficient than for power, 80% versus 25%, a major factor favoring the shift, Niebling said. Waste heat from biomass plants is also an issue, with very little recapture. “Right now it’s going up into the atmosphere,” Niebling said. Remote biomass plant siting in most cases is hampering co-location with companies using surplus heat or piping out to homes and businesses, as is often done in Europe.

Although the EPA considers wood-fired electricity production as carbon-neutral, many scientists dispute that there are climate benefits. Emissions can also include nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and particulates.

“Burning wood can be highly polluting, because woodstoves and wood-fired boilers lack the emission controls that are required for a power plant,” said Mary Booth, founder of the Partnership for Policy Integrity and a critic of the bioenergy industry.

The EPA also certifies home wood and pellet stoves and systems, presently capping emissions at 4 g/hr, with further reduction by 2020. According to the agency, certified wood stoves release 30% of the particulates emitted by non-certified stoves, or 1.4 lbs/MMBtus. Performance is even better for pellet stoves, at .49 lbs/MMBtus.

That pollution is considerably higher than oil and gas furnaces, with particulate emissions at .013 lbs/MMBtus and .0083 lbs/MMBtus, respectively. The EPA notes that natural gas, solar and geothermal are cleaner options.

Morton Bailey, owner of Lyme Green Heat, has been in the wood pellet business since 2008, and thinks the economics will support more conversions.

“People save money with pellets,” said. “And the price is stable.” Bailey, and in 2011, started selling pellet boilers. “But when oil prices drop, so does demand for install of bulk systems. This year we’re seeing increased interest, due to prices creeping back up.”