This article originally appear in the Valley News, January 20, 2022, and is shared with permission.
Here in northern New England, wood heat is in our DNA. We live by that old “saw”: “Wood heats you four times: when you cut it, when you split it, when you stack it, and when you burn it.”
But now we’re also being warmed by climate change — which is caused in large part by combustion, including of wood. In light of this fact, can wood heat still be considered good heat?
The argument against wood heat starts with the fact that burning wood does produce greenhouse gases and particulate, although the amount of each varies greatly depending on technology. And trees in a well managed forest can be valuable absorbers or “sinks” of excess carbon in the atmosphere.
On the other hand are practical, economic, and even competing environmental arguments in wood heat’s favor.
About 80% of Vermont and New Hampshire is forest, providing a locally available fuel that’s not subject to the volatility of fossil fuels. The money spent on wood fuel stays in the local economy through income for foresters, loggers, landowners, sawmills, and wood processors. Even wood pellet production is a mainly local affair in northern New England—pellets sold in the Upper Valley come from plants as close as Jaffrey, N.H.
In addition, sales of cordwood and wood for pellets offer income for forest owners that allows them to keep their land from development.
“It’s expensive to buy and properly steward forest land,” said Orange County Forester Dave Paganelli. “Along with the taxes, you have costs like forestry plans and trail-building. If you can’t afford to pay all the bills associated with taking care of the land, eventually you’re probably going to have to sell it. Somehow we have to make it affordable for people to own forestland and do the right thing with it.”
According to recent figures from the University of New Hampshire, the percentages of homes that cite wood as their primary heating source are 17% in Vermont and 8% in New Hampshire. Vermont’s state climate and energy plan aims to have the state obtain 35% of its thermal energy needs from wood heat by 2030.
Given all this, how do we make wood heat as good as possible?
First: Reduce the need for heat.
Whatever your heating fuel or appliance, the cheapest and most environmentally friendly BTU is one not needed because your building is weatherized. With some of the nation’s oldest housing stock and coldest weather, New Hampshire and Vermont still need lots of building weatherization. Even so, the typical Vermont home could cut its heat demands by 25% through weatherization, states a 2021 report by the Energy Action Network of Vermont. Efforts in New Hampshire were delivered a blow in November when the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission slashed funding for energy efficiency. New Hampshire ranked 18th on the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy’s 2020 State Energy Efficiency Scorecard while Vermont scored third. (To find out more about help getting your home weatherized, go to vitalcommunities.org/energy-help.)
Second: Source wood fuel sustainably, whether cordwood or pellets.
“Sustainable forest management can mean many things, but one thing I think it must mean is that, over time, we don’t harvest more than we grow,” said Paganelli. “Most sustainable forest management involves landowners that have a forest management plan and use a forester to set up and supervise timber harvesting.”
Forest products fall into three basic classes: the straight, unblemished trees that have value for lumber or furniture; the crooked or damaged hardwood trees that can supply cordwood or wood chips for pellet production; and softwoods, woody debris, and sawmill leftovers that can be turned into pellets.
“It’s like weeding the garden,” said Milton Bailey, owner of Lyme Green Heat, which sells pellet boilers. “It’s like the old idea of using all parts of the animal.”
Sustainable forestry allows for the harvest of all these classes of materials while leaving behind enough of everything – old trees, young, trees, straight trees, crooked trees, dead trees, debris and more – so the forest retains its biological and genetic diversity.
Third: source your fuel locally.
The less the cordwood or pellets have to travel from their source to your home, the less energy is used in that fuel’s lifecycle. Processors like New England Wood in Jaffrey, N.H. — Lyme Green Heat’s source for the pellets it delivers to its customers — turn the wood into pellets with a consistent size and BTU rating, which means they burn more evenly and thoroughly — and cleanly — than cordwood.
“Cordwood is an interesting fuel,” said Scott Nichols, whose Orford-based business sells Tarm Biomass pellet boilers. “No two pieces are the same. Different species burn differently, the way it’s split affects how it burns.”
Pellets take away that fuel variation.
Fourth: consider your appliance.
They vary greatly in how many BTUs of usable heat they produce per biomass burned and emissions created. At the top of the efficiency ladder is the wood pellet boiler. Next are pellet stoves, then EPA-certified cordwood stoves with catalytic converters, then non-EPA certified stoves.
Differences are even greater in how much particulate matter they produce: one non-EPA certified woodstove can produce as much particulate matter as 200 pellet boilers, according to a recent report by the Energy Action Network of Vermont.
You may be able to get government help with the purchase of a cleaner appliance through a federal tax credit of 22% available through 2023. The state of Vermont offers additional point-of-sale rebates. (See the appliance dealers’ websites for details.)
Nichols began distributing pellet boilers after growing up with woodstoves sold through his family’s hardware and hearth store in Lyme and choosing to focus on the most environmentally friendly appliance.
“I had found that the stove business was being taken over by luxury and decoration and was less and less about energy efficiency,” he said. “But with boilers, there’s no tug of war between decoration and using this renewable resource in the best way possible.”
Pellet boilers can be a great choice for heating a larger space that a single stove wouldn’t serve well, especially one already outfitted with a fossil-fuel-fired central water heat. Just as in a fossil-fuel boiler, a thermostat controls when fuel is added, making for an even, efficient burn, and the piping “puts the heat where you want it,” Nichols said.
But what if you are heating a smaller space that’s more practical to heat with a stove? We can cut emissions by replacing old stoves with newer models from 1990 or later. Upper Valley woodstove manufacturers Vermont Castings and Woodstock Soapstone both offer models that exceed the EPA standards and improve on older catalytic converter designs.
Fifth: avoid operator error.
Make sure the wood you burn is aged at least six months and kept dry. Wet or green wood uses up BTUs just to evaporate its moisture, along producing more creosote, which increases the chance of a chimney fire. Follow your stove’s operating instructions so you are achieving burn temperatures that engage the catalytic converter. And instead of adding a log, try adding a sweater.
“It’s about efficiency,” Paganelli said. “We can heat with wood but we don’t want to waste it. We need to make sure we make our homes require less energy to heat, that we’re using appliances that burn as efficiently and cleanly as possible, that we use local wood, and that we use sustainably harvested wood so we’re not damaging our forests to heat our homes.”
Rebecca Bailey is Communications Manager for Vital Communities, which serves the 69-town, bi-state greater Upper Valley by bringing together people, organizations, and communities to create equitable solutions to our region’s challenges. More at vitalcommunities.org.