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Heating with Forest Biomass: The facts on emissions

Posted by Renee Magyar on August 5, 2015

What is forest biomass, how utilization is better than wildfire, and what the emissions look like

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One third of energy produced in the United States is used for heat. Many rural forest communities in the Northwest are without access to natural gas, which is the preferred heating fuel for its low cost and low emissions. For these communities, forest biomass is an affordable, renewable, and local alternative.

Since 2009, Sustainable Northwest has been working with the Oregon Department of Forestry, Oregon Department of Energy, the U.S. Forest Service, and diverse community partners across Oregon to expand the number of heating conversion projects for small town facilities, like schools and hospitals that have switched from heating with oil to heating with wood. These facilities save millions of dollars on heating costs, decrease fossil fuel dependence, and support forest health and restoration projects, and local wood products businesses. So far in Oregon we’ve seen growth of these conversion systems from 4 in 2009 to 20 in 2015.

Often the question comes up about emissions. Does biomass cause pollution? Unlike quality biomass fuel, the answer is not cut and dried. 

To address this question, we’ve created a fact sheet with an overview of what biomass is and is not, and some of the specifics about emissions. Yes, biomass emits pollutants like any other source of fuel, and at a lower volume than some sources, though not as low others. However in the Northwest, compared to losing forest resources to wildfires that release tons of unchecked emissions, proper utilization of biomass captures energy and considerably reduces emissions. 

We would like to thank the member organizations of the Oregon Statewide Wood Energy Team for providing valuable input to guide the development of this piece, and the Oregon Department of Forestry for providing funding.