We are currently on faculty exchange at the University of Bern, Switzerland, and have had the opportunity learn about integrated land uses, forest management and energy issues in the Alps.
We recently toured a biomass heating plant in Au, a small town in western Austria, which heats all municipal buildings and schools, five hotels and approximately 20 nearby residences. During the peak winter heating season, the plant burns approximately one semi-truck load of wood chips every three to four days. The wood chips are residues generated by two local sawmills and unmarketable forest thinning, waste material that would otherwise be burned on site or disposed of in some way, and all is sourced within 6 miles of town. Au is located in a deep valley where winter inversions are frequent, yet there have been no air quality concerns given the efficient and clean-burning technology.
Perhaps most striking is there’s little evidence that a biomass heating system is located in the center of town. The chips are unloaded inside an attractive wood-sided building. The heating facility is below ground and also heats a large public parking garage. The only evidence of the facility is a sign proclaiming “Biomasse Heizwerk Au” and a chrome smoke stack on the side of the town hall.
Thousands of similar state-of-the-art biomass heating plants, both large and small, can be found throughout Austria and Switzerland, and more are being built every year. The citizens from Au we met are very proud and pleased with the facility. We understand why: biomass heating plants generate local employment, provide a market for waste wood, support forest management activities, and reduce dependence on fossil fuels in an economically attractive and sustainable way.