About one third of all energy consumed in the United States is used for the heating and cooling of homes and buildings and for water heating. Most of this energy today comes from fossil fuel, the source of most greenhouse gas emissions. There are many ways to meet heating and cooling needs that can boost local economies without doing harm to the climate and the environment. Expanding the use of biomass, geothermal, and solar thermal energy resources is key.
Biomass energy resources are widely available across the United States. Richter, et al., estimate that using the most efficient technologies, biomass could sustainably provide as much as five percent of total U.S. energy needs – exceeding the amount of energy held in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and equaling half the energy now derived from nuclear power. Developing biomass resources and deploying new technologies could stimulate the economy, recycling energy dollars within local communities and providing tens of thousands of jobs across the country.
Clean, affordable and highly efficient heating systems are already being used today, using wood pellets and wood chips in residential and commercial applications. For example, downtown St. Paul, Minnesota, is heated, cooled, and powered by a biomass-fired district energy system, as is much of the campus of Middlebury College in Vermont. The market for biomass thermal energy (and other renewable thermal energy technologies) is growing rapidly in Europe, whereas the U.S. market is developing much more slowly, largely because of differences in national policies.
On June 2, the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) held a briefing to examine the promising potential of sustainable biomass to meet a much greater portion of the nation’s heating and cooling needs while also addressing climate, energy, and economic needs. Panelists discussed the challenges and opportunities in federal policy to advance the development of biomass and other renewable thermal energy sources (e.g. geothermal and solar thermal).
- Approximately one-third of U.S. energy is used for heating and cooling space and residential water, yet the significant potential of renewable thermal energy is largely ignored in national climate and energy policies.
- Renewable biomass thermal energy could contribute quickly to reducing greenhouse gas emissions because it is widely available now across the country.
- U.S. biomass energy resources can be expanded significantly and sustainably.
- Forests are a limited renewable resource that serve many economic, social, and environmental needs. Therefore, when woody biomass is used for energy, the maximum amount of energy value should be derived from it. Combined heat and power systems (CHP) can achieve efficiencies of 75 to 90 percent.
- Using woody biomass to meet heating and cooling needs can be cost effective, especially when applied at the small-scale community level.
- Community-scale development of biomass thermal energy can create permanent local jobs, improve overall energy efficiency, and promote sustainable land use.
- Using biomass thermal energy will also help to make sustainable forest management practices economically viable by creating a market for low-quality wood and other biomass.
- Biomass thermal energy displaced the equivalent of about 264,000,000 gallons of heating oil in 2008.
- Despite the lack of strong federal incentives, the pellet fuel industry is growing quickly. The industry expects to double the production of wood pellets every 18 months for the near future.
- Setting a national renewable thermal energy standard (including biomass, geothermal, and solar thermal) and other incentives would help accelerate the deployment of proven renewable thermal energy technologies.