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Learning from the leaders in biomass

Posted by Dylan Kruse on September 29, 2014

Dylan Kruse attended the International Biomass Heating Seminar for insight into the leading models on thermal biomass systems.

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Two weeks ago I had the good fortune of attending the International Biomass Heating Seminar in Linz, Austria. The meeting, coordinated by the Oekoenergiesparverband – the energy agency of Upper Austria – introduced attendees from 7 countries to the revolutionary biomass energy industry and economy of Upper Austria.

The state of Upper Austria is undeniably the global leader in biomass heating. 25% of all modern biomass boilers installed in the European Union are manufactured there, and the industry employs more than 4,500 people. In total, Upper Austria has over 350 district energy plants and individual boiler installations that are heated with wood, either in the form of cordwood, chips, or pellets. This number accounts for 50% of total heat demand in the region. Additional thermal demand is met with residential energy, which is often integrated with individual homes’ biomass boiler systems.

Since the mid-90’s the government of Upper Austria, with additional support from the European Union, has prioritized renewable energy development and energy efficiency measures in nearly all buildings. As a result, Upper Austria is on pace to meet 100% of its electricity and heat demand with renewable energy sources by 2030.

How did this remarkable story happen, and is there any chance to replicate it in the United States? Here’s what made Austria the global leader in this space, and the envy of its neighbors in the EU.

Innovative farmers and forest owners: As is the case in the United States, only 40-50% of wood material harvested for restoration or commercial use can be processed at sawmills. Recognizing this opportunity, small farmers (who own a significant percentage of Austrian forest land) formed co-ops to build, operate, and supply feedstock for the nation’s district energy plants and individual boilers. This reduced the cost of fuel, created adequate supply for market growth, and generated new revenue streams for landowners.

State policy and regulation: For 25 years, a range of investment grants have been in place in Upper Austria to support the purchase of biomass boilers for projects that connect buildings to biomass district heating plants. Agricultural programs have supported investments in co-op activities and district thermal energy plants, and the state government and EU also have strict emissions and efficiency standards, which have pushed the growth of the renewable energy sector. But fiscal and environmental policy doesn’t account for the full picture. Additional market certainty and growth has been promoted because of strict standards for wood fuel quality and boiler performance. Because businesses are able to adhere to a uniform and regional standard for product quality, it has allowed for clear market signals, steady growth, and industry innovation.

Smart entrepreneurs: With market signals in place and adequate supply of feedstock, business leaders in Austria are able to harness thermal biomass energy by developing fully-automated, high-efficiency, low-emission, and user-friendly systems. Part of this system is a revolutionary  pellet transport and delivery service, where bulk delivery of pellets for a home heating system is as easy as  the fuel oil or propane deliveries we are familiar with in the US, but with less frequent need for replenishment.

In addition to technical training sessions offered at the seminar, we witnessed all aspects of Upper Austria’s biomass energy supply and marketing chain – their version of the “forest to boiler" system – from the co-op farmer forests that provided raw feedstock, to the pellet manufacturer, on to the transportation and distribution network, and eventual bulk pellet delivery in a home with an Austrian manufactured wood boiler.

This was a fantastic opportunity to see an example of a fully functioning biomass energy economy, much like the one that Sustainable Northwest and our partners have been promoting and developing for years. We see potential for growth in the residential sector, and are exploring ways to replicate the policies in place in Upper Austria. The goal is to create more market certainty for small business growth, and to create products that are clean and efficient so biomass can become a real solution to our renewable energy needs.