Wood is warm

The potential for wood-based thermal energy in the upper Great Lakes states is huge. But it won’t happen overnight and there are many barriers. But others have come a long way. Maybe, we can, too.

Sometimes case studies serve as inspiration for potential accomplishments that lie within our grasp. A look at how renewable energy has emerged in the state of Upper Austria serves such a purpose.

According to Michigan State University Extension the State of Upper Austria is about the size of the eastern four counties of the Upper Peninsula, but has a human population of about 1.4 million (about thirty times that of the eastern U.P.). It has about half the forest area. It has also grown a tremendous industry around heating with wood.

The people of Upper Austria decided to decrease their use of fossil fuels through both conservation and the deployment of renewable technologies. Many local farmers and forest owners were looking for markets for low quality wood. Generating heat from biomass is an essential piece of that strategy.

Renewables now provide over 30 percent of Upper Austria’s energy. Nearly half the heat demand is met with renewables, with a 100 percent goal by 2030. Wood, in the form of chips, pellets, and cordwood, now fuels this strategy.

Upper Austria has deployed 44,000 automatic biomass boilers and has about 320 district energy systems fueled with wood. Over a million tons of wood are consumed per year, sustainably, in concert with a vibrant forest industry. Less than 60 percent of Upper Austria’s forest growth is harvested. An additional half-million tons are consumed in “combined heat & power” plants that produce heat and electricity.

Most of the residential boilers are fully automatic pellet units, with bulk delivery once or twice per year. A typical home burns three to six tons of pellets per year. Heat is distributed via hot water. Many households combine pellet technologies with passive solar for hot water. About 25,000 pellet systems have been installed since 1996.

District energy (DE) system sizes range from microgrids to networks that feed small cities. Centralized heating plants, usually fueled with wood chips, distribute heat via buried insulated pipelines, to heat exchangers in each member building. The heat plants often have two, or more, boilers to adjust to fluctuating demand.

Wood chips are produced and solar-dried at hundreds of small operations across the landscape. Wood-chipping contractors move from farm to farm, typically leaving the chips on-site. During the summer, batches of chips are dried in a week or less. Storage is either local or at a community DE facility.

Upper Austria is a world leader in pellet boiler manufacturing, producing about 50,000 units per year, and have made about a quarter of all units in the European Union. It’s a 690 million dollar per year industry. The entire wood-based energy supply chain has brought about 4,500 jobs to the state.

The wood biomass industry in Upper Austria was initiated by landowners looking for markets and a citizenry concerned about the consumption of fossil fuels. The state government responded with a series of policies and incentives. Entrepreneurs gradually built the current mature wood energy market economy. Today, Upper Austria is recognized as a world leader in wood energy and renewable energy.

In some ways, the northern Great Lakes states have advantages over Upper Austria. Our region has a well-developed forest industry and infrastructure. Forests are more abundant and annual growth greatly exceeds harvest.

A high percentage of household’s heat with either propane, electricity, or fuel oil. Industrial parks, downtown commercial districts, and large buildings such as schools and hospitals may more easily take advantage of wood heating (and cooling) opportunities. Wood-based technologies are often cheaper, especially over the life of the heating system. Many case studies exist of clean, modern, and cost-effective wood heat systems.

For more information, the internet has many resources. Try contacting the statewide wood energy teams in Michigan, Wisconsin, or Minnesota. Heating the Midwest is an organization working to increase wood-based thermal. Parts of New England are already further down this road than the Great Lakes region. And, the USDA has several programs to assist and advance thermal energy. 


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