Heating With Wood: Why Wood Heat Is Renewable Energy

A leading wood-heat expert explains in epic detail why wood is an essential energy resource.

| March 2, 2010

  • Heating with wood
    EPA-certified woodstoves cut wood smoke by up to 90 percent compared with older, so-called “airtight” stoves.

  • Heating with wood

John Gulland’s involvement with wood burning began in 1974 when he built a woodstove for his own home. Since then he has gained professional experience in virtually every aspect of heating with wood, including product design and manufacture, retailing, standards development, policy and market analysis, laboratory research, professional training and writing. Most recently he helped launch The Woodpile, an advocacy project attached to the popular woodheat.org website. 

By any measure, wood is an important residential energy resource, especially outside large urban areas. More than 10 million U.S. households — a little less than 10 percent of the total — use wood as their main heating fuel or to supplement other heating fuels. More than 25 percent of Canadian households are heating with wood.

A drive through small towns and down country roads in forested regions confirms that fuelwood is a significant energy resource. The long rows of piled firewood standing in yards serve as proof. Every winter, the wood is cut from woodlots, and every spring it’s split and stacked to dry in the summer sun. In the fall it’s moved to the house and stacked again, and in winter it keeps families cozy warm. It’s a seasonal ritual, that has been recurring for generations.

Firewood for home heating is an indigenous, renewable energy resource that helps families stretch their household budgets and strengthen their local economies. And yet, an increasing number of vocal activists are clamouring to have wood burning banned from their communities because of air pollution, and even some environmentalists warn against the increased use of firewood, fearing negative impacts on our forests.

A balanced assessment of firewood for home heating is long overdue. This article explores how burning wood contributes to the prosperity of rural communities, to the health and well-being of their inhabitants, and to the environmental sustainability of our society. It also tackles the problems of wood-smoke pollution and forest resource impacts.

Smoke Emissions

Wood-smoke pollution is the most serious negative result of wood heating, so it’s best to deal with it first.

3/7/2010 2:07:13 PM

Bat, wood heat is green. Like everything else in life there is doing it right and doing it wrong. A properly combusted wood fire will produce no more particulates than oil or NG. Properly combusted you get steam and CO2, unfortunately most, even EPA approved items don't. Even then if you look at the net environmental effects of the energy sources wood comes out way ahead.

3/7/2010 1:50:14 PM

jgulland replied to my concerns by quoting Dr. Anthony Trofymow "I think that for upland temperate forests any methane production from wood decay termites is likely balanced by methane oxidation in the soil by methanotrophic bacteria and thus there is likely zero net release of methane from wood decaying in upland forests." Methanotrophic soil bacteria do not jump into the air and digest the methane there. They do work on the methane produced by the degradation of the stump and roots of a tree and subsoil organics. Speaking from DIRECT experience methane builds up in many slash piles especially during wet seasons, and both the last 2 summers have been very wet in NE Ontario, and when the slash piles are in swampy terrain, somewhat common as they are used to fill and support equipment movement. Mr Trofymow and I are thus speaking of 2 different sinks. Once the methane enters the atmosphere It will have it's negative effect. If he is indicating that the natural migration of air through the soil allows the soil organisms to clean out the methane I would appreciate specific references to journals and articles to support this contention. I am well aware that methanotrophic bacteria exist and how they work, I very much disagree they provide balance in human disturbed systems.

Lee Einer
3/7/2010 11:02:33 AM

I have a masonry heater in my home, a 1950's adobe. I use about 2 cords of wood, per winter. And I live in the foothills of the Sangre de Christos, where the winter is generally both long and cold. Much of the air pollution associated with woodburning can be alleviated by simply (1) burning dry wood and (2) building fires correctly for a top-down burn. A good, low-smoke fire with a top down burn is accomplished by stacking firewood log cabin fashion, big pieces on the bottom, progressively smaller pieces towards the top, and by igniting the fire at the top of the stack rather than the bottom. With the initial combustion at the top of the fire, smoke from beneath must pass through the area of the flame, and is combusted rather than rising up the flue in the form of creosote. Far more of the pollution can be eliminated by using a stove which burns HOT with ample oxygen, storing the heat in thermal mass. A masonry heater or siberian wood stove is one option, a rocket stove with its flue routed through a mud, stone or adobe banco (bench) is another.

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