Wood touted as 'new' renewable fuel

Lee Richardson is a pioneer of sorts in taking a new look at a very old energy source.

The Wicomico County poultry farmer just finished installing a commercial-sized wood pellet stove to heat one of his chicken houses in Willards, east of Salisbury. When his next flock of chicks arrives from Perdue, Richardson will test how the wood-warmed birds fare compared with those raised in a neighboring house, which is heated by burning propane gas.

"We're going to run it for a year and see what happens," Richardson said.

Wood, humanity's earliest fuel for keeping warm, is being touted these days as the latest thing in renewable energy: a greener, often cheaper way to heat a home or building than burning oil or propane or consuming coal-fired electricity. It's also less expensive to buy and install than solar panels or geothermal systems, advocates say.

"It's the workhorse of renewable energy in Europe and should be in the United States," said William Strauss, president of a Maine-based consulting firm specializing in what it calls "bioenergy." He spoke recently at a day-long conference in Annapolis aimed at encouraging more use of wood in Maryland to heat homes, offices, schools and even hospitals.

Two-thirds of the renewable energy generated in Europe comes from burning wood or other plant-based material, Strauss said, and it has caught on in parts of the United States, particularly in colder states. About a third of students in Vermont, for instance, go to schools heated by burning wood chips or pellets, advocates said. Some schools and health centers in Pennsylvania also have converted boilers to use wood as a fuel.

Maryland is using wood to provide heat and power at an Eastern Shore prison, the Eastern Correctional Institute in Princess Anne. But beyond that initiative, taken 25 years ago, there's been little done to encourage wood-based energy in the state.

That's beginning to change. The Maryland Energy Administration is offering $400 rebates to homeowners who put in new, cleaner-burning wood stoves and $600 rebates for modern pellet stoves. And it's provided a $250,000 demonstration grant to a commercial greenhouse in Carroll County to help it pay for switching its heating plant to burn wood.

"We're pro-biomass," said Abigail Ross Hopper, Gov. Martin O'Malley's energy adviser and acting director of the state energy agency.

Biomass — plant material or agricultural waste used as fuel — is "an important piece of a diverse energy mix" the administration is trying to develop for Maryland, Hopper said.

"It's cheap. It's clean. It's renewable," said Del. Heather Mizeur, a Montgomery County Democrat whose unsuccessful effort to legislate financial incentives for residential wood and pellet stoves inspired the O'Malley administration's initiative.

Indeed, Mizeur believes that increasing the use of wood and other plant-based materials for fuel is key if Maryland hopes to achieve its legally mandated goal of generating 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2022.

A coalition of state agencies, nonprofit groups and private businesses believes more needs to be done to realize wood's potential in Maryland. It wants to see expanded incentives for homeowners, businesses and institutions to switch to wood heat, and to clear away what it contends are outmoded environmental restrictions on commercial-scale wood-burning boilers and furnaces.

"Everywhere I go I see scrap wood," said Del. Dana Stein, a Baltimore County Democrat who believes there's a large untapped reservoir of urban wood waste that could be used productively instead of being taken to the dump.

Generating electricity from biomass already qualifies for lucrative "renewable energy credits" under Maryland law, but Stein said he would like to see wood heat qualify for credits as well, helping to pay homeowners and businesses to install or convert their existing heating systems.

In addition to saving consumers money, advocates say, growth in heating with wood will help sustain the state's wood products industry and generate jobs while tapping an abundant renewable resource, state woodlands.

One Maryland company that would benefit from an expansion of wood heating is American Wood Fibers. Headquartered in Columbia, the firm has plants across the country and bills itself as the nation's largest supplier of wood shavings and other wood byproducts for a variety of uses. The company has been selling wood byproducts for industrial fuel for 50-plus years, but started making pellets about seven years ago. It uses a pellet-burning boiler to provide heat and some power for its plant in Jessup, which processes wood shavings and sawdust for sale as pet and horse bedding.

"We didn't necessarily think 45 years ago that we were in the energy business," said Stephen Faehner, vice president of industrial and bioenergy sales and son of the company's founder. "We just called ourselves a wood fiber company that was involved in boiler fuel. We've always sold wood for energy, but lately it's gotten a lot more sexy."

Right now, though, the company doesn't produce wood fuel in Maryland. Its Virginia plant is the nearest source.

One significant hurdle to expanded use of commercial wood heat is the state's air quality regulation. Decades ago, in an attempt to reduce severe air pollution in the Baltimore and Washington areas, the Department of the Environment restricted the use of medium-sized wood-fired boilers that might heat a school or commercial or industrial building. Wood energy proponents argue that new boilers have become much cleaner and more efficient, and widely available pollution control equipment can reduce emissions further still.

State regulators say they've begun to review the wood boiler regulations, with an eye to selectively easing the restrictions.

"We want to be careful," said Angelo Bianca, deputy director of the agency's air management division. Much of Maryland still has a problem with air pollution, he said, adding, "We want to make sure we're not opening the floodgates."

While some environmentalists are fully behind expanded reliance on wood-burning for heat, others say that newer stoves and boilers still generate potentially harmful air pollution, especially particulates that can aggravate asthma and cause serious long-term health problems.

They also worry that expanding government incentives for wood heat may slow development of other energy sources they think are much greener, such as solar. And since burning anything to produce energy also puts carbon into the atmosphere, they doubt that promoting wood heat truly helps combat climate change.

"Quite a few questions remain," said Greg Smith of Community Research, a Montgomery County group that focuses in part on environmental issues.

Wood already is the fastest-growing residential heating fuel in the state, proponents say, with consumption increasing by a third in the decade since 2000. More than 190,000 Maryland homes have wood stoves, and another 13,000 have "pellet" stoves, which burn fuel made from compacted sawdust and wood scraps.

But there's room for growth, advocates say. While the costs of heating with wood can't compete with natural gas, they see potential in the more than 800,000 homes in the state that depend on electricity for warmth and the 240,000 residences that use heating oil.

Prompted by Mizeur's legislation, the state energy agency earmarked $50,000 toward giving rebates to homeowners for new wood or pellet stoves — enough for perhaps 100 grants. Wood advocates say it's a small boost, compared to the grants and tax breaks offered for solar energy installations.

"This is for rural people, low-income people, not just the Montgomery County folks who are putting solar panels on their homes," said John Ackerly, head of the Alliance for Green Heat, a nonprofit group in Takoma Park.

Proponents also want to encourage businesses and institutions to switch to wood. In what the state energy agency calls a "game-changer grant," it's helping Catoctin Mountain Growers in Detour spend an estimated $3 million to install a "biomass" boiler. It will replace the oil- and propane-fired heating system the nursery now uses for 14 acres of greenhouses where it raises poinsettias, pansies, mums and a variety of other plants.

Richardson's wood-heated chicken house is another pilot project, underwritten and overseen by the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

With an estimated 5,100 chicken houses on Delmarva, wood energy proponents see great potential if growers and poultry companies there can see similar benefits.

"My job is to find out whether it's grower-friendly to work with and whether it keeps the house warm enough," said Richardson, who raises chickens for Salisbury-based Perdue.

Instead of propane-fired heaters blowing warm air inside the house, a large stove that burns wood pellets has been placed outside, with heated air blown into the house through new ductwork. The stove was donated by an Alabama company hoping to make some sales in Maryland, and the university extension service is paying to have wood pellets shipped to Richardson's farm from a supplier in Pennsylvania.

Richardson is taking a wait-and-see attitude.

"I still have my gas in there," he said. "If it doesn't do the job, I've got backup."