Wood is Great: The Elevator Pitch

Local wood that's about to be compressed to make a pellet.

The world can often seem too complicated for its own good. It’s a big reason why people like you and I live in a rural place, where things are simpler to some degree.

Through this lens, I sort of hate having to write columns periodically on why burning wood for heat is good, because of course it’s good. We all know this. I don’t have to tell you that cutting your own firewood, or buying a load of logs from the local logger, or a pallet of pellets that were produced in this region, and using that fuel to keep your family warm is a million times better than buying an imported fossil fuel product. You already know that the new wood chip boiler in your local public school has saved the taxpayers in your region hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But unfortunately, just knowing it is not enough. People like you and I need to champion wood, lest we lose the culture and the infrastructure that has built up around its use. And if we’re going to be good advocates, we need to hone our elevator pitches on why it’s a superior fuel. I’m a sucker for a long, meditative essay on the soulfulness of work and fire as much as the next rural geek, but much of the world has no time for meditative essays. People want things quantified and scientized, and there are plenty of misguided environmental activists and PR people from the fossil fuel industry who are filling the numbers vacuum with fuzzy math.

In light of all this, I was happy to read this new study on greenhouse gas emissions and state-of-the-art wood pellet boilers. The report was commissioned by the Northern Forest Center and conducted by The Spatial Informatics Group-Natural Assets Laboratory (SIG-NAL) using data specific to the region’s forest composition and harvest practices, and the pellet sourcing and manufacturing of nine northern forest pellet mills. You can read the detailed methodology here.

Here’s the elevator pitch:

On day one, using wood pellets for heat reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 54 percent compared to oil and 59 percent to natural gas.

After 50 years, greenhouse gas emissions from pellets drop to 62 percent less than oil, 67 percent less than natural gas, and 56 percent less than propane.

Here’s one more for you from the Northern Forest Center website that’s handy to have in your back pocket:

Every dollar we spend on regionally produced wood pellets stays in the northern forest economy, creating jobs in forestry, logging, pellet manufacturing, and trucking. In contrast, 78 cents of every dollar we spend on imported fossil fuel (currently $6 billion annually) leaves the region; much of it leaves the country.

Know a Hillary supporter who’s extra motivated these days to do something to fight climate change? They could instantly cut their greenhouse gas emissions in half by switching from oil to wood pellet heat. Know a Trump supporter who’s into creating jobs and skeptical that climate change is even a problem? Remind them that only twenty cents of every dollar spent on oil benefits the economy in the Northeast, while one hundred percent of every dollar spent on wood heat helps make the rural Northeast great again.

 
Discussion
  1. Marion Shorey → in Washington County, NY
    Dec 09, 2016

    Your writing has relieved my fears of the unknown…meaning I wasn’t sure where wood burning falls in it’s contribution to greenhouse gases relative to other fuels. What I am unsure of now is how wood pellets vs. chunks of fire wood in a woodstove compare on their emissions. Any knowledge or thoughts on this comparison?

  2. Tom Thompson → in Essex,VT
    Dec 09, 2016

    As a former teacher and wood burner, cutter and splitter for almost 40 years your opening comments brought to mind the wood harvesting poetry of David Budbill who recently passed away. Reading his work warms you once again.

  3. Ken Brown → in Goshen, VT
    Dec 10, 2016

    If only the politicians could think so sensibly.

  4. Dave → in Corinth, VT
    Dec 12, 2016

    I don’t have any hard data on chunk wood at hand, Marion. And it’s hard to quantify because there are so many variables. A modern, high-efficiency woodstove burns more cleanly than an older model. But how dry your wood is also has a big effect. The other thing to take into account is where the fuel comes from. If you’re cutting trees in the backyard, splitting them, and burning them, there’s that much less of a carbon footprint than if you buy your wood.

    If it’s a choice of one or the other, i’d pick whichever you’re more comfortable burning and then maximize the quality of your fuel, thus minimizing your GHG emissions. With pellets, this means buy the most efficient unit you can afford and buy premium pellets—if they’re regionally produced, even better. If it means chunk wood, buy or cut quality wood, dry it properly (age it, split, for at least a year in full sun with good air flow), and then burn it hot. If you can afford a new, high-efficiency stove, get one. (Some states have trade-in programs.) If not, just proceed with dry wood and hot fires. In the big picture, any type of wood burning is better than fossil fuel burning, so whichever route you take, you’re already heading in the right direction.

  5. Rhonda Shippee → in Morgan VT
    Dec 15, 2016

    Great article.  Using “local heat” is as important as local food but gets much less press!  The good news is there are also good incentives from Efficiency VT and the Clean Energy Development Fund to install modern pellet boilers and Efficiency VT has just reinstitued a $1,500 incentive for new wood or pellet stoves.  There’s no better time to move to wood heat!

  6. Amy Record → in West Fairlee, VT
    Dec 16, 2016

    A question arose as I was burning a chunk of dead elm last night -15 elm made a great banker for the overnite!
    Last summer during the drought I noticed a lot of elm trees wilting and dying, was it the extra stress of fighting disease or is elm just more susceptible to drought?

  7. Dave → in Corinth, VT
    Dec 20, 2016

    I think the first, Amy. Elm does prefer moist soil and is susceptible to drought, but dutch elm disease is the primary stressor of trees over a certain size. They’re all, unfortunately, living on borrowed time. The beetles that spread the disease need fissures in the trees’ bark to lay their eggs, so they spare the young trees. But most mature trees will be infected by the disease and it will eventually kill them. If anything, the drought may have just accelerated this process a bit.

  8. Carolyn → in East Wallingford, VT
    Dec 22, 2016

    I hate to be a killjoy here, because I understand the economic and environmental pluses of heating with wood. However, what people don’t seem to talk about is how painful it is—financially painful, to convert a whole-house heating system from oil to wood, and physically painful to process, haul, and stack it (referring here to firewood logs, not bagged pellets). Then, of course, there’s the mess it makes in the yard and house and clothing, doubling the labor. Once you’ve acquired injuries—from whatever occasion—that make key body parts lame, and/or once you’ve achieved senior citizen vintage, the cost of heating with wood takes on a new burden. Particularly if you don’t have children or local kids needing allowance money to stack it for you. Then there’s the hazard factor loggers have to deal with to get those trees down and processed and delivered. As well, if you happen to have a lean income or a temporary setback, there are subsidy programs available to help buy heating oil or propane but none I’m aware of in our state for wood, and you can purchase oil/gas with a credit card if need be but for local firewood it’s usually cash-on-delivery. Getting it stacked early enough in the season to be dry for winter is also a challenge if you have to spread out deliveries and payments across the warm-weather season, and can’t overbuy each year to stockpile. So yeah, wood is great, but not in all situations. I miss the simple button-pushing days of oil heat!

  9. Lauren Watson → in Norway, NY
    Mar 02, 2017

    We are familiar with the saying “the devil is in the details.”  The study pertained to the Northeast while totally ignoring what is going on in the southern U.S. where widespread clear cutting is going for supplying pellets for European power generation.  Please address this topic in the future.

    Heating my home, I try my best to minimize our “carbon footprint.”  I cut only dead, dying, and downed trees for fuel.  Often they are partially held up from the ground and are already partially seasoned.  With the level of disease currently in our forests, this isn’t too hard to do.

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