Chipping In: Austrian Co-Ops Play Role in Making Nation a Leader in Wood Biomass Energy Production

Article excerpt

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Last June, we traveled to Europe to attend a symposium on small-scale forestry. Before the meeting, the National Network of Forest Practitioners organized a tour to visit some of Austria's innovative cooperative biomass-related projects, which we had been hearing much about.

We read as much as we could about these operations in advance of the trip, but the opportunity to see biomass facilities and talk to the people involved in establishing and operating them provided us with a much better feel for what was happening and of the significant progress the Austrians are making in this area of renewable energy, often through the use of producer-owned cooperatives.

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First stop: Linz, Upper Austria

Our first stop was in the city of Linz, in the state of Upper Austria. The primary purpose of this visit was to meet Christiane Egger, deputy manager of the O.O. Energiesparverband (the Upper Austria Energy Agency). OOE was founded in 1991 by the regional government to promote energy efficiency, renewable energy sources and innovative energy technologies by targeting residential households, municipalities and businesses. She is also the manager of the Okoenergie-Cluster, a network of 150 companies active in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Egger was recommended as someone we should talk to by the U.S.-based Biomass Thermal Energy Council (BTEC), a nonprofit association dedicated to advancing the use of biomass for heat and other thermal applications in the United States.

In advance of the trip, we had asked our contacts at BTEC and the U.S. Forest Service for any leads and/or contacts that could help improve our understanding of the Austrian wood-biomass system. Egger had been in the United States several times to discuss the Austrian experience in diversifying their energy mix, most recently last April to address the "Heating the Northeast with Renewable Biomass" conference in New Hampshire.

During our meeting, we talked about the work of her agency in Upper Austria, focusing on some of the specifics pertaining to wood-based biomass. While Upper Austria has taken a comprehensive approach to energy diversification, it has demonstrated significant advances and leadership I in the field of biomass heating.

More than 40,000 wood chip and pellet heating installations can be found in Upper Austria, along with some 300 district heating networks and 12 biomass power stations. All of this is occurring in an area the size of Vermont with a population of 1.4 million. These accomplishments owe much to targets having been set early on by the regional government, and further advanced by the availability of comprehensive information, energy advice, awareness-raising activities and financial incentives. Or, as the Austrians like to note, by a combination "carrot-stick-tambourine" approach (the tambourine is a metaphor for the awareness-raising activities underwritten by the state).

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The steep upward trend in biomass heating generation in Upper Austria is impressive, but there is still a long way to go before meeting the government's target of

producing 100 percent of the region's space heat and electricity from renewable energy sources. That is the goal set for 2030, which--if met--would be quite a feat, considering that Upper Austria is a highly industrialized region with an extensive manufacturing base.

Second stop: Hartberg, Styria

From Linz, we headed southeast to the Austrian state of Styria, also known as Steiermark. Here, we met Christian Metschina of the Austria Chamber for Agriculture and Forestry. He gave us a tour of a new facility near Hartberg, known as a "biomass logistics and trade center" (BLTC).

The Hartberg BLTC was opened last fall by the Maschinernring Hartbergerland (Hartberg-area Machine Ring), a cooperative of farmers originally organized to share farm machinery, such as tractors, and to trade labor. …