Heating with biomass

What should I consider when switching to a biomass heating system?

Heating with biomass is not a new idea. Except for the current petroleum age, biomass has been the primary fuel source for heating throughout history, especially in areas with natural forests such as Michigan. Wood burning can be a low cost method of heating, but the tradeoff is the effort that goes into cutting, splitting and stacking, as well as feeding the wood stove. Utilizing current technology, many new biomass heating installations are appliances that burn biomass pellets. These pellets are most commonly available as wood pellets, but other biomass alternatives are available in some areas.

One motivation for switching to a biomass pellet heating system is fuel cost. While pellets may be cheaper than other options, you should carefully calculate your estimated costs. You will need to know the cost per unit (gallon, ton, cubic feet) of each of the fuel types that you are considering and the efficiency of the heating appliance.

Energy cost comparison tools are online at MSU Extension’s “Heating Buildings and Business Operations with Biomass Fuel: A Planning Guide,” or Pennsylvania State University’s “Coping with High Energy Prices: Energy Cost Calculator.”

As an example, propane priced at $2.39 per gallon burned in a 90 percent efficient furnace would cost $29.02 per million Btu’s while wood pellets priced at $200 per ton burned in an 80% efficient appliance would cost $16.34 per million Btu’s. Since an average home in Michigan requires 85.3 million Btu’s per heating season, the cost per year of propane would be $2,476 and the cost per year of wood pellets would be $1,394.

Example of fuel cost comparison

Fuel type Cost/unit Efficiency Cost/MBtu Annual cost
Propane $2.39/gal 90% $29.02 $2476
Wood pellets $200/ton 80% $16.34 $1394

It is important to consider the additional cost and effort of using a biomass fuel compared to a fuel such as propane, fuel oil or natural gas that require very little handling and management. Pellet appliances can be convenient in operation, but still require adding pellets on a regular basis (some daily), removing ash, storing fuel and close attention to fuel quality. Other considerations are the use of a renewable resource, local economic development and environmental quality.

Whatever your goals are, biomass heating offers an exciting alternative to petroleum-based fuels.

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