A less-heralded aspect of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2014 agenda is a plan to increase the number of homes and businesses burning biomass for heat. It has industry advocates excited, even if they have moderate expectations for growth.
It didn’t make his State of the State speech to the legislature, but in the longer, written version of his agenda, Cuomo says he wants to cut down the number of homes that use heating oil.
To do that, Cuomo wants to launch a biomass heating program called Renewable Heat NY.
Nearly two-thirds of the state is covered in forest, but just two percent of New Yorkers heat with wood. To be specific, biomass refers to wood chips or pellets made of branches and wood scraps burned in special boilers. This isn't throwing logs in the fireplace, which is a very inefficient way to heat homes by comparison.
Industry advocates argue that harvesting biomass is better for the local economy because the energy source is harvested locally, rather than imported via a pipeline.
Charlie Neibling, president of the New York Biomass Alliance, says he’d like to see the number of New Yorkers using biomass increase by five to 10 percent. He says that falls within what the state could harvest sustainably.
He admits competing with abundant and cheap natural gas will be a challenge.
"That’s a multi-billion, if not trillion, dollar industry and we’re just a fly spec on a gnat’s ass compared to that," he said.
"Will it get ever to 50 or 100 percent acceptance of everybody? I doubt it very much," said Stefan Grimberg, a professor at Clarkson University who researches biomass. "But will it make an impact? Yes, if the economic drivers are there, people will accept it."
"The point is you need to do all of the above," he added. "So you need to do wood if you want to displace fossil fuels, but you can also do solar, you could do water, wind and other biomass."
The target audience for this biomass initiative would be rural New Yorkers not hooked up to natural gas - and who rely on propane or other fuels. Still, Neibling concedes switching to biomass isn’t only a financial investment, but can be pretty labor-intensive.
"It does involve a little more interaction on the part of the homeowner or the business, but you know we’ve gotten pretty lazy – pretty fat, dumb and happy using cheap energy over the years," Neibling said.
Cuomo says the first year of the program would focus primarily on consumer awareness.