Is biomass the unloved stepchild of renewable energy?

Cleaner sources of energy are all the rage these days but how come solar and wind get most favored status? A panel discussion today at the Building Energy conference in Boston made be case for biomass as a renewable, distributed form of energy.

Although perhaps not well known, biomass in the form of wood chips, sawdust or forest wastes, can be used to create electricity and heat.

At a biomass panel at the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association Building Energy conference on Thursday, Shashank Nadgauda from Renova Engineering described a number of combined heat and power projects underway right now.

These projects, one which produces four megawatts of power, use a process called gasification to turn biomass like woodchips into gas which powers an electricity generator; the resulting heat is also captured to heat a building.

This sort of local power generation makes sense in several scenarios like industrial sites, sawmills or green houses which can use carbon dioxide from the gasification process.

But biomass just doesn't get the consideration that other forms of distributed power generation do.

"Many deciders in government are not familiar with the technologies. For some reason PV (photovoltaics), fuel cells and wind are the favorite children of state agencies. The biomass is still the stepchild. State incentives, in my opinion, are unfair," he said.

Another problem, Nadgauda said, is that small businesses are risk-averse and simply don't know much about biomass-driven combined heat and power systems. Meanwhile, large utilities aren't necessarily interested in systems that don't produce hundreds or thousands of megawatts of power.

But the potential for biomass is still there. Nadgauda noted that there are 8 million dry tons of biomass available in New England and New York capable of generating two to 6 million megawatt hours per year. The actual biomass production is only 2000 megawatt hours.

That's a situation that could be changed if biomass were promoted and incented much the way the wind and solar are, he argued.