Biomass energy is energy from plant materials. It is a very broad category, encompassing direct heat sources (e.g. wood stoves), electricity generation, and biofuels for transportation (e.g. ethanol and biodiesel). Biomass feedstocks are also varied, and can include: forest residues, mill residues, crop residues, energy crops, animal waste, municipal waste, and even methane gas captured from landfills. For example, biodiesel made from used cooking oil or other plant-based oils can be used in standard diesel engines, thus replacing an imported fossil fuel with a clean, locally produced energy source.
A common technology used in homes is biomass space heating, which often refers to high efficiency stoves fueled by wood or pellets. To qualify for many renewable energy incentives, biomass heaters must have a thermal efficiency of 75% or higher, meaning that 75% of the energy released through combustion is used to heat the intended space. Most newer biomass heaters will be EPA Certified, indicating that they meet or exceed this standard. Since EPA Certified heaters are designed to burn fuel more efficiently, they also release less emissions than many older models of biomass heaters. This is also a key distinction between technologies like solar or wind and biomass: Biomass technologies often are designed to burn fuel to generate energy, which does release emissions. The main difference between fossil fuels and biomass is that the emissions from biomass are often considered to be roughly equal to those taken in by the plant feedstocks throughout their growth. Because of this, it is usually considered neutral in terms of emissions, and therefore a clean and renewable energy source. Because conventional wood burning has historically been a contributor to local air pollution, especially in urban areas, you will want to check your local ordinances and regulations regarding biomass heating before further exploring this option for your home. There may be local restrictions on the type of biomass heaters allowed, limits on their emissions, or times when biomass heating may not be permitted due to low local air quality.
What size system do I need?
A general guideline is that a biomass heater/stove rated at 60,000 British Thermal Units (Btu) can heat a 2,000-square-foot home, while a stove rated at 42,000 Btu can heat a 1,300-square-foot space. The specific needs of your home will depend both on its size, the extent of air circulation throughout, and how well your home is insulated. A biomass system installer will be able to assess your home and recommend a heater that is the appropriate size for you space, which will ensure your heater operates at optimal efficiency and provides sufficient heating.
How Much with it cost?
A biomass heating system that is sized to meet an average home's heating needs (53 Million BTU/year) will generally cost around $5,000, before incentives. An important consideration s that this cost does not take into account the time or cost necessary to acquire fuel for a biomass heater over the life of a system. The total time and cost required to fuels a biomass system with be less with a pellet stove compared to a wood burning stove. One of the best ways to ensure your renewable energy system pencils out financially is to invest in energy efficiency measures. To learn more, see our resources on Efficiency and Electrification.
What Incentives and tax credits are available?
There are several options for biomass systems. Visit our Financing and Incentives page for more information on your options.
Where can I find and installer?
The column on the right hand side of this page lists a number of installers operating in Montana. These companies are all MREA members! You can also visit our full Installer Directory for an interactive map of installers.
Where can I find more information?
- Burn Wise - Environmental Protection Agency
- Wood and Pellet Heating - US Department of Energy
- Pellet Stoves: What You Need To Know - Energy Sage
- Montana Green Power Biofuels Page - National Center for Appropriate Technology
- Biomass Energy Resources - Montana Department of Environmental Quality's
- Biomass Program - US Department of Energy
- Montana State University Extension E3A Anaerobic Digesters Fact Sheets
- Montana State University Extension E3A Biodiesel Fact Sheets
- Montana State University Extension E3A Wood Heat
Photo credit (this page): Montana State University Extension E3A Wood Heat