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Learning from European Advances in Biothermal Energy

The lesson that Europe can provide the United States is understanding that in order for renewable energy to increase, solar and hydro must be supplemented by wood biomass. By Jonathan Kays, Forestry Extension Specialist, UME

In 2008, I traveled to Austria with a group of forestry and engineering professionals to learn about the application of biothermal wood energy taking place on a national scale. This past spring, I had the opportunity to visit Austria again and see the advances in technology and application that has taken place in Austria, and much of Europe.

In 2015 Austria had 2,200 biomass heating plants and 140 biomass combined heat and power (CHP) plants, all in a country no bigger than the state of North Carolina (Figure 1). The use of wood to produce thermal heat and some electricity (use CHP) in Austria has the full support of government through generous subsidies to residential and commercial applications, and through progressive policies and regulations that use carbon taxes and other policy tools. The question is how would this approach work in the United States, what parts are applicable, and what can we learn from the Austria experience?

Figure 1. In 2015 Austria had 2,200 biomass heating plants and 140 biomass combined heat and power (CHP) plants, all in a country no bigger than the state of North Carolina.

In the last few decades, the Austrians have supported all technologies that will achieve renewable energy, sustainability, energy security and fossil carbon energy reduction objectives. In brief, they have taken seriously climate change goals imposed by the European Union (EU). Further, they want to reduce the dependence on Russian gas supplies, which is a huge national security issue. The European Union Renewable Energy Target 2020 sets binding targets for member states to reduce greenhouse gas emission (GHG) by 20% by 2020 compared to 1990 levels. The EU 2030 targets seek a 40% cut in GHG emissions by 2030.

Austria realized that the only way to significantly increase renewable energy and meet the EU targets was with bioenergy, more specifically, the use of wood fuel, which is carbon-neutral by EU definition and by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Without the use of bioenergy, renewable energy share stagnates at 10 to 13%, relying only on hydro, wind, PV, solar and heat pumps (Figure 2). The only path to reach EU targets for 2020 & 2030 is with bioenergy.

Figure 2. Without the use of bioenergy, renewable energy share stagnates at 10 to 13%, relying only on hydro, wind, PV, solar and heat pumps.

U.S. state governments have set goals similar to the EU, known as Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS). Ours are largely limited to producing 20 or 30% of electricity from renewable sources.However, most states don’t acknowledge the use of thermal energy, its contribution to the energy stream, nor the use of wood biomass an efficient and clean technology to produce thermal energy and CHP. Europeans countries generally understand the thermal energy value of wood and have incentivized it while the U.S. has not. They have well-developed supply chains and woodland owners regularly thin their woods and leave logs along the roadside to be picked up and transported to district energy facilities or other locations, from whom they are paid. Harvest areas are immediately planted with new seedlings and the young forest nurtured to grow vigorous to produce a new forest. The level of forest management is impressive because there are markets for low and high-quality wood products, much of this in the thermal energy production market.

Unfortunately, the U.S. has an unrealistic look at energy production, which is about one-third for electricity, one-third for transportation, and one-third for thermal energy to heat and cool our homes. Renewable energy production is focused primarily on electricity, with only one state including thermal energy. Environmentalist in the U.S. are supportive of solar and wind, but unwilling to accept the carbon-neutral status of renewable wood biomass and encourage its use. Fortunately, many U.S. citizen know better and wood and pellet stoves and furnaces are very popular, the challenge being to replace older high emission units with more current clean burning technology.

The lesson that Europe can provide is that in order for renewable energy to increase, solar and hydro must be supplemented by wood biomass if we are going to attain our RPS goals. The Austrians and Europeans in general, have recognized the carbon-neutral status of woody biomass and developed supply chains, incentives and markets needed to aid its development. The U.S. needs to follow suit.

There are some other major differences between Austria and the U.S., especially regarding workplace safety. During visits to many manufacturing facilities, workers did not wear hardhats, ear or eye protection, or have any of the safety requirements required by OSHA. Workers smoked at work stations, there were no beepers on equipment, and wiring and equipment installed in district heating systems lacked the level of protection found in the U.S. The OSHA regulations that protect U.S. workers are essential. The point is that lower work safety requirements in Austria translate into lower costs for installation and maintenance of biomass and other energy systems compared to here in the United States.

Austrian policies to incentivize wood biomass result in significant carbon-based taxes on fossil fuels and electricity to cover the higher cost of thermal and electrical energy produced by biomass and conservation improvements. Austrians pay about $0.24/kwh for electricity while in the U.S. electricity is about one half to a third of that depending upon where you live. Gasoline is more than twice as much in the U.S. The use of carbon taxes on gas and electricity is not politically likely in the U.S. but allowing wood biomass systems to compete equally with other renewables such as solar and wind for public projects makes sense. Btu’s of thermal output is typically converted to kilowatt-hours of electricity using the conversion of 3,412 Btu’s per kilowatt-hour. Wood is not the answer for many energy applications but if builders, architects, and governments have the choice, it can then rise or fall on its own merits.

A major stumbling block is the unfamiliarity of architects and engineers with commercial and residential wood biomass systems. This is where government agencies, trade organizations, and other educational institutions can have an impact. Enhancing demand and supply chains can be encouraged with public facilities putting biomass on an equal level with other renewable energy systems. This was the case with the fledgling solar industry years ago and it can be repeated for the wood biomass industry. Creating a thermal Renewable Energy Credit for wood and heat pumps would be a positive step by capture existing energy production in RPS targets and providing an incentive for more development.

As a forester, expansion of wood markets for renewable energy production would provide woodland owners more opportunities to derive income from forest properties to accomplish their objectives and encourage sustainable management. Forests of high-quality trees can only developed if there are markets for low-grade material and solutions to thinning forests to prevent wildfires requires economic models with viable markets to utilize the wood. The United States is not Europe but incorporating aspects of Austrian wood energy economy would benefit renewable biomass energy efforts in the U.S.

Jonathan Kays is a Forestry Extension Specialist for the University of Maryland Extension. He can be reached at

jkays@umd.edu or (301) 432 - 2767 extension 323


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