Uphill battles

Wood-based district energy grids and wood-based home/commercial heating are the lowest hanging fruits on the renewable energy tree. Michigan offers huge potential to benefit thousands of citizens, hundreds of businesses, communities and the environment.

Looking around the region, the country and internationally advanced renewable energy economies, there are patterns that need to develop in order to capture the many advantages of wood-based heat and one of the important renewable energy technologies.

Nationally, heating and cooling buildings consumes roughly a third of our energy resources. The percentage of space heating is a bit higher in Michigan due to our cold winters. One of the easiest ways to heat and cool buildings is through wood-based products, especially those residences and commercial districts that are off the natural gas grid.

Boiling down a large volume of diverse case studies, there are certain components that lead to successful projects. Not all are essential to get the ball moving in Michigan, but mature renewable energy economies have them all in place. 

  1. Identify local champions to support local projects.
  2. Policy packages, including regulatory and financial environments favorable to wood-based thermal energy and comparable to other renewable technologies.
  3. Market intelligence that assesses progress, facilitates communication, identifies economic clusters, builds partnerships and employs adaptive management.
  4. Appropriate technology to meet emission rules, product quality standards, high efficiency and individual site characteristics.
  5. Fuel standardization, especially for wood pellets but also for wood chips.
  6. User convenience comparable to natural gas.
  7. Sustainable forestry practices that provide quality feedstocks.
  8. Outreach that highlights the benefits, progress, status, success stories, how-to options and demonstration programs.
  9. Supply chain analysis and development, including forests, loggers, processors, fuel delivery, boiler manufacturing, installation, et al.
  10. Training in all areas of the supply chain.
  11. New construction installation, as it is often cheaper than retrofitting.
  12. Long-term vision, including projections against fossil fuel prices and availabilities. 

Several of these elements are lacking in Michigan, yet wood-based energy projects continue to slowly deploy. Many have been operating for decades and are competitive with current low natural gas prices. Michigan State University Extension’s statewide wood energy team works to move down this renewable energy road.

Michigan has a vast resource forest that grows over twice the volume of wood harvested each year. Not all of that added inventory will be available as many forest owners are not inclined to manage and harvest their woodlands. The volumes are not evenly available across the state. However, these facilities typically use small quantities of wood. The demand could easily be met across much of the state.

Additionally, urban areas have substantial quantities of waste wood (deconstruction, tree removals, etc.) that could fuel district energy grids. Downtown St. Paul, MN is heated, cooled and powered by such a grid.

Wood-based thermal energy has additional advantages, such as retaining energy dollars, enhancing sustainable local economies, using carbon that’s already in the carbon cycle and displacing fossil fuels. Wood-based energy works well to help achieve economic, social and environmental goals.

The wood energy team is looking for communities and local champions that may be interested in building wood-based thermal facilities. Team members are willing to speak with economic development groups and other organizations. We can provide information and possibly access planning, engineering and financial resources. Take a look at the website for a growing body of information. 

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