We’ve been developing an article for the upcoming issue about outdoor wood boilers, and the topic has been driving us a bit crazy. On the one hand, many of these boilers are terribly smoky and have been the target of recent air-quality regulations. On the other, they allow people to burn local, carbon-neutral fuel – a clear environmental benefit.

How can these issues be sorted out?

The danger from smoldering wood boilers is immediately obvious and well studied. Besides driving the occasional neighbor to distraction, the smoke from these boilers contains a brew of nasty chemicals and a host of tiny particles that lodge deep in the lungs and can cause cancer. Why would anyone choose such an option when “clean-burning” natural gas is available?

It’s “clean burning,” of course, only if you manage to disregard how it’s produced. Add in the drilling rigs, the spilled hydrocarbons, the habitat destroyed by gas pipelines, and the refinery emissions, and “clean” no longer seems like an honest adjective. Whoops – forgot to mention global habitat destruction from fossil carbon emissions.

It seems an inherent human trait to place more value on the issue in front of our eyes than the issue hidden out of site. A smoky boiler next door is more troublesome than a hydrocarbon flare in Texas. A nasty clearcut in the next town is more disturbing than a nasty clearcut in the Amazon, even if cracking down on the former may increase the likelihood of the latter.

Our economic system may not have been designed to obscure such trade-offs, but it does a good job hiding the truth just the same. We’re sure that a battery of economists and trade experts could, given sufficient time, figure out which is “better” for the environment overall, the “dirty” wood boiler or the “clean” gas furnace. But it’s not that clear to us, sitting in our office in the woods of Vermont.

The good news is that there are options to these smoky boilers, so the choice becomes clear. Great strides are being made in cleaner technology for wood boilers, and we’re very pleased to be able to report on these improvements. Plus, at the end of the day, you sometimes need to go with your gut feeling. A local source of heating that is carbon-neutral, keeps dollars in the local economy, and can be burned cleanly under the right conditions?

Now, that’s a good story.

 
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