One large maple tree stores more energy than a 2.5 KW PV array will produce in 1 year with New Hampshire sunshine. 50 maple trees could provide more power (thermal energy) than a 5 KW PV array supplies in 25 years (A 5 KW panel will offset all annual power used by a typical NH residence). Surprised? If the United States expressed heat in Kilowatt hours as is done in Europe, the capacity of U.S. renewable thermal generation would astonish most people. About 50 homes in my community of Lyme, NH recently added PV generation of about 250 KW as part of a community wide “Solarize” project, which was fantastic. What few realize is that my company alone added 250 KW with just 3 thermal projects in town during the same time period.
The flexibility and concentrated energy contained in biomass makes it a low hanging renewable energy source. For instance, a cord of wood (128 cubic feet) or a ton of wood pellets used in an efficient boiler will produce approximately 4500 KWH/year, whereas a 2.5 KW PV panel will, according to NREL, produce about 3275 KWH/year in NH. The power advantage is obvious. The flexibility of biomass heating is derived from its exceptional use of stored solar energy. Biomass thermal doesn’t require a south facing exposure or a cloud free day. Biomass is capable of producing thermal Kilowatts anytime because the energy released by a biomass boiler has been stored in advance by nature’s living batteries- trees.
Consider all of the recent news about President Obama’s battery initiative and Tesla’s mega battery plant. People tend to get excited about gee whiz technology and the promise of jobs. Meanwhile, without any fanfare, biomass energy is being stored by nature’s manufacturing plants (actual plants) without creating massive quantities of materials that will eventually become hazardous waste. Elon Musk’s battery plant is impressive, but batteries produced there will store a small fraction of energy compared to our forests.
Forests are storing solar energy every day of the year, with zero harmful emissions and with plenty of beneficial emissions for FREE! Wood harvests often result in 75% or more low grade wood, which is not turned into lumber. By using low grade wood as heating fuel, land owners earn more from their forests, encouraging proper forest management and conservation. Sustainable forestry creates zero net carbon emissions and at the tail end of the wood burning process, the ash from wood burning becomes a valuable fertilizer. One ton of wood ash (which is easily certified organic) contains 600 pounds of lime, 200 pounds of calcium, 75 pounds of potassium, and 20 pounds of magnesium.
The biomass thermal sector doesn’t need to join or to be threatened by the renewable power revolution. We need people to understand that trees are a productive and natural way to harness solar power. Furthermore, biomass heating should be widely accepted as a valid, inexpensive, and highly flexible form of solar energy. What we do, provide massive quantities of renewable megawatts with sustainably managed forests is unassailable. It is solar energy. Current renewable energy technologies can play an important role in concert with each other. Renewable energy markets don’t have to be and can’t be a contest for superiority. There isn’t enough renewable generation from any one source to meet all of our energy needs.