ASHRAE/USGBC/IES 189.1: Is Biomass Another Wood Battle in Green Construction?

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The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE)  the U.S. Green Building Council, and the Illuminating Engineering Society are considering the developing biomass requirements for inclusion in their new, co-sponsored green building standard.

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ASHRAE/IES/USGBC Standard 189.1, Standard for the Design of High Performance Green Buildings, contains requirements for the use of renewable energy systems such as solar, wind, and geothermal. The Standard 189.1 Committee recently considered a proposal to add biomass to the definition of renewable energy systems.

Biomass, in this context, includes organic material, such as wood and crop waste, that can be burned to generate thermal energy. This could, potentially, include, potentially, wood-burning furnaces and other organic heating systems. ASHRAE’s standard 189.1 committee, at its 2015 Winter Conference, voted not to accept the proposal to simply add the word biomass to this definition. The committee, however, said it intends to work on a definition of biomass as well as requirements on its use.

The standard currently has no restrictions on the use of biomass as an energy source, but it does not allow it to be used to meet renewable energy requirements. Many in the green building environment do not believe in the use of wood and other biomass combustibles for heating because of pollution and overall scalability issues. Others, however, are for it. US Senator Ron Wyden Sen.(D-Ore.) recently said he wants the federal government to replicate the successful use of biomass energy in his home state.

In a letter to General Services Administration Administrator Dan Tangherlini and US Forest Services Chief Thomas Tidwell, Wyden urged the GSA to reconsider constraints on using biomass in federal facilities for heat, or combined heat and power, in certain circumstances.

Prior to the current biomass debate, the USGBC had a years-long internal feud over the use of wood as a building material and which organizations could certify wood as “sustainable” for LEED projects. The 2006 white paper above was commissioned by USGBC as a result of a special “wood certification meeting.”

Aluminum paneling, steel or aluminum curtainwall, structural steel, copper tubing and other metal building materials have actually had an easier time of being certified when they are made from recycled scrap under the materials and resources credits of LEED than their biomass building material brothers in the timber industry have. ASHRAE 189.1 is, however, a building standard and NOT a green building certification system. The entire idea of the ASHRAE, USGBC and IES partnering last year was to make the code work better with LEED and other certification systems. The three organizations agreed to collaborate on the development of Standard 189.1, a new International Green Construction Code (IgCC) and the LEED program.

The purpose of the collaboration was to align LEED and ASHRAE 189.1 so that they work together as a voluntary certification standard and a legal regulatory framework.

The constituencies within the USGBC are part of what created the robust debate within its membership over certified wood the last time. Expect ASHRAE to try and limit the debate over biomass for heating so that an internal struggle pitting timber producers vs.  other members of the green building movement does not break out again.

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