By Dutch Dresser

While attending the Northeast Biomass Heating Expo in Saratoga
Springs, NY, I heard Carlton Owen, President of the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities make some observations about the budding biomass heating industry that I thought were important. In a remark that proved to be prescient to me, he warned against “too many voices” representing the industry.

The speakers I heard during the presentations felt obliged to speak in general terms about the industry and its technology with promotion of their own products at least muted. Unfortunately, their understandings of the state-of-the-art from which to generalize were not at all the same. The curious collective result would have confused many new biomass equipment consumers and sent them scurrying.

One speaker patiently explained to the satisfaction of engineers in
the room how the equipment he represented burned efficiently and
cleanly throughout its modulation range making expensive mass thermal storage tanks an option, not a requirement. Another devoted two presentation opportunities to insisting that everyone use large accumulators to ensure clean emissions. (See an earlier accumulator discussion.)

One speaker talked about the routine total replacement of fossil fuel burning equipment using his product here and in Europe, while another insisted that fossil fuel redundancy was essential with biomass heating systems because the products weren’t always reliable and service wasn’t always readily available.

One speaker spoke about delaying customer boiler acquisition until envelope tightening had been accomplished to ensure proper load matching, while another explained to the group how his boilers had adjustable output ranges so that boilers could be fine-tuned for matching load as load changed either up or down during the life of the boiler.

After listening to such contradictions throughout the presentations, it became quite clear that everyone was being earnest and everyone was telling a truth of sorts, but that the forced generalization of their product-specific truths was creating a fog of confusion that would have startled a potential buyer. This fog was likely a bit daunting to engineers and architects present for the first time trying to learn about the new technology and its possible applications.

I was reminded of my days in the IT industry during the early development of the Internet beyond colleges and universities. There were lots of different networking products emerging and setting new standards as they emerged.

Then, as now, the customer, engineer, or architect really needed only to listen to “generalizations” a manufacturer’s representative made about how things ought to be in the industry at large to hear how that manufacturer’s products were at that moment. As with the development of IT products, the marketplace will insist upon those products that are the most useful, most robust, and least demanding, and those products will quickly become the new standards by which others are measured.

Dutch Dresser is the Managing Director of Maine Energy Systems, a representative of Okofen boiler products.