Biomass warms up
Boilers that burn timber byproducts spread through the Adirondacks
SARANAC LAKE — Can biomass electricity generation save the Adirondacks?
Kate Fish, executive director of the Adirondack North Country Association, thinks it’s an important piece of the economic puzzle. In keeping with ANCA’s mission of promoting economic development that preserves the environment, she’d like to see more biomass electricity generation.
“The technology has made leaps and bounds in the last 15 years,” said Fish. Noting that the region is a net exporter of energy, Fish envisions a future of energy independence for the Adirondacks.
“From an electricity point of view, the North Country produces 63 percent of the renewable energy for the rest of the state. That’s mostly hydro and wind, but also a little biomass.
“The more we can disconnect from the ‘pipes and tubes,’ the better,” said Fish. “All this ties in with the real character strength of the region: Independence, self-reliance, willingness to try new things.”
Biomass, as a renewable energy source, offers a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels. Fish points to the conversion of a coal-burning plant to biomass at the Fort Drum Army base: “When the coal went away, it was pretty clean.”
Burning biomass is carbon-neutral. Unlike fossil fuels, which release carbon sequestered from the environment for millions of years, biomass comes from carbon-based life forms already in circulation.
Proponents say it’s better for the environment than burning coal, and some European countries are importing U.S.-manufactured wood pellets for large-scale electricity generation to meet their clean energy goals. However, the Natural Resources Defense Council has criticized large-scale wood pellet production in the southeastern United States, saying greed and a lack of regulation have led companies to harvest whole trees rather than use byproducts of the lumber industry. Further, in some places biofuel production takes land that would otherwise be used for growing food.
In New York, where the forest industry and environment are heavily regulated and land is not taken out of food production for biomass, wood pellets make more sense.
Pat Curran, CEO of Curran Renewable Energy in Massena, said the plant makes wood pellets from marginal timber. “You can make a wood pellet out of something no one would ever think of putting in their stove,” he said.
Curran Energy started in the 1970s when Curran and his brothers went into logging. It grew into Seaway Timber and Curran Logging, producing logs for sawmills and pulp for paper manufacturing in New York, Ontario and Quebec. As the market for paper products changed, the Currans established Curran Renewable Energy LLC in 2009.
“We decided to build a wood pellet manufacturing plant,” said Curran. “The nice thing is, it creates jobs in your own area.”
They had a favorable business climate for a few years, as the price of fuel oil was high and the winters were cold.
“Personally I don’t want the cost of oil to ever be high again,” he said, “But I’ll take my chances with cold winters. The North Country needs winter.”
Curran said the plant in Massena employs 100 people.
“If the market was strong, we’d employ around 139,” he said.
The low price of oil in recent years has meant fewer people are motivated to invest in wood pellet stoves.
Fish said biomass production helps the lumber industry as well.
“It maintains a year-round workforce,” she said. “If you lose those jobs for a season, you can’t just turn the switch and they’ll come back.”
The newest generation of biomass burners use wood pellets or chips with a convection burning system that burns matter two or three times, producing very little ash and soot. Residential owners of wood pellet furnaces say they only have to dump the ashes every few weeks and perform furnace cleaning twice a year. Those furnaces use the wood pellets for heat, however, which is different from using them for electricity generation — a more complex and expensive process.
Help with installation costs
In spite of the cost of installation, biomass boilers for electricity are becoming more widespread. Public and nonprofit entities such as the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the Wild Center museum want to invest in renewable energy to resist climate change.
Petrova Elementary School in Saranac Lake, the Wild Center in Tupper Lake, Fort Drum and now the village of Tupper Lake have committed to using biomass.
The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority offers grant support for residential and commercial wood pellet boiler installation, anywhere from 25 percent of the cost of a small wood pellet stove to 45 percent of the installed cost of a commercial-scale wood pellet boiler.
In 2010, NYSERDA helped the Wild Center install the first commercial-scale pellet boiler in New York state. The agency was interested in collecting data on how the boiler worked.
“We went into it with an experimental mind frame,” said Wild Center Executive Director Stephanie Ratcliffe. The Wild Center biomass boiler is connected to a solar thermal array, which helps preheat the hot water in the heating loop. NYSERDA sought to answer questions such as how big a holding tank is appropriate for the size of the building. A copy of NYSERDA’s report on the project can be found at the agency’s website.
“We have been tweaking things all along,” said Ratcliffe, “so they can have recommendations for anyone in the state who wants to install a commercial-scale boiler.”
The first year the museum saved $30,000, according to Ratcliffe. The second year it budgeted less for energy, so it would be difficult to say how much was saved.
“It keeps our heating dollars local. It keeps the workforce working,” said Ratcliffe. “All of our wood comes from within 100 miles of the Wild Center.”
Adding to the energy grid
“To the extent that biomass can help people transition to locally sourced fuel, it will be a real boon to the area,” said Fish. “We don’t have access to natural gas here. We’d love to see small-scale hydro increase.”
In Tupper Lake, which just received word that its $1.4 million grant application for a biomass boiler was approved through the state Regional Economic Development Council process, Mayor Paul Maroun said the village is not looking to replace what it has. That includes its own municipal electrical authority.
“I have to make sure we sell enough electricity to keep our electrical system up and operations running,” said Maroun. He’d like to use the biomass electricity generation system to replace the use of fuel oil in Tupper Lake. By some estimates, this could save those consumers 45 percent of their heating costs.
“The goal is to reduce everybody’s cost,” said Maroun. The new boiler, he hopes, will help the Mercy Living Center nursing home and local residents using fuel oil. The boiler will be housed in its own building and service a pipeline running behind Aubuchon Hardware along Lake Street, toward Mercy Living Center. In the future, it could be expanded to other places in the village.
That could include Sunmount, a state facility for developmentally disabled people that is Tupper Lake’s largest employer by far.
“The people at Sunmount use a tremendous amount of fuel oil. If we could reduce their cost by 45 percent, that would keep them here a lot longer,” Maroun said.
“We’re going to need some more money,” he added, “but this will get it started.”