Community-Based Bioenergy and District Heating

Lead Author: Dr. Steve Bratkovich

Publish date: 04.22.2009


Benefits, Challenges, Opportunities and Recommendations for Woody Biomass


With oil prices peaking at an all-time high of $145 per barrel in July 2008, there is a renewed focus on using wood for energy. Woody biomass is a renewable fuel that holds promise to help the U.S. become more energy independent.


Using wood for energy in the United States is not a recent development. Up until the 1880s, wood generated more energy for our nation than coal. However, beginning more than a century ago fossil fuels replaced wood as “energy king”. Alternatives to fossil fuels have been promoted in the U.S. since the oil embargo of 1973. Today, renewable energy sources (biomass, solar, wind, hydroelectric, and geothermal) supply about 7% of U.S. energy consumption. Wood and other forms of biomass provide approximately 50% of the total renewable energy consumed in the country.


Wood’s abundance, renewability, versatility, and carbon-neutrality make it well suited as a feedstock for energy applications, and as an alternative to fossil fuels. Wood can be used to produce thermal energy, electricity, and transportation fuels. The technologies for transforming woody biomass into energy include direct burning in boilers or other combustion devices and pyrolysis ‘action’ that results in a range of ‘energy products’ such as liquid fuels, char, and gas.


Applications that include the generation of thermal energy range from direct combustion for home heating (residential wood stoves burning firewood and wood pellets) to large-scale industrial uses (forest products manufacturing plants drying lumber). Wood-based electrical generation includes stand-alone power plants as well as cogeneration facilities where both heat and power are produced (paper mills for example). Transportation fuels that can be derived from wood include ethanol, methanol, gasoline, and diesel.


District heating, employed as a wood-fired system to distribute thermal energy to institutions, industries, and individual homeowners, is a proven and efficient technology that has been widely adopted in European countries and selected U.S. locations. District heating can be cost-effective, provide economic benefits and stimulate the local economy, while offering new and expanded markets for woody biomass. A coordinated series of actions is needed at the federal, state, and local community level to expand the adoption rate of woody biomass as a heating fuel in the U.S., and the ability to transform our nation into an energy independent country should be enough incentive to move us boldly in this new direction.


This report is part of the Seeing the Forest AND the Trees project of the Blandin Foundation’s Vital Forests/Vital Communities initiative. This report specifically focuses on the thermal uses for wood as it applies to (1) district (community) heating and (2) combined heat and power (electricity) applications (cogeneration or Combined Heat and Power, CHP). District heating and CHP have enormous potential in the upper Midwest, including Minnesota. The opportunities and challenges of expanding district heating projects in the region are explored in this report. Lessons learned from around the U.S. and from other parts of the world are presented, as well as recommendations for further domestic development.