This is an opinion piece from Sam Evans Brown, executive director of Clean Energy New Hampshire and Joe Short is vice president of the Northern Forest Center.
Within the growing clean energy community, advocates agree that transitioning away from fossil fuels must be a top priority in the fight against climate change. Similarly, energy efficiency has to be aggressively pursued in tandem with clean energy generation.
Beyond these points, however, consensus begins to crumble, and those disagreements put at risk our ability to use (quickly) all the tools at our disposal to reduce the carbon footprint of our energy choices. To make a meaningful dent in emissions, we need an all-renewables approach, not one that pits renewables against each other or makes the perfect the enemy of the good.
Consider the case of modern wood heating. This is not an old wood stove, fireplace, outdoor wood furnace or wood electric plant; this is high-efficiency central heating that meets all EPA and state standards for emissions of soot and smoke and can be dropped in to replace an oil or propane heating equipment.
In the Northeast, heating our homes and buildings accounts for 40.3 million tons a year of carbon dioxide emissions from more than 3.6 billion gallons of heating oil, not to mention the other fossil fuels used for heat. Beyond these massive climate impacts, fossil heating fuels increasingly exact a steep economic toll. Heating oil prices have risen from $2.27/gallon in January 2021 to $4.84/gallon today, draining significant dollars from household budgets and the regional economy.
In contrast, modern wood heat reduces net carbon dioxide emissions by more than 50% when compared to fossil fuels. And wood fuels, produced locally and renewable, have remained affordable and cost-stable for years. This winter, wood heat was cheaper on a per-BTU basis than all other heating fuels. What’s more, in New Hampshire, forest growth currently exceeds harvest by more than 2:1, making it hard to argue that our wood resources aren’t being used sustainably.
Given these realities, high-efficiency, low-pollution, modern wood heat should have a central role as we seek to move away from fossil fuels. Yet we see it increasingly marginalized and even demonized by certain renewable energy advocates.
The cutting of any tree is held up as un-environmental, ignoring well over a century of New England practice in managing natural forests for multiple benefits while increasing forest cover. Anti-wood arguments frequently assume that forestry practices from other parts of the country, e.g., Southeast pellet plantations, Pacific Northwest old-growth logging, are taking place in New England, which is simply not the case. Modern wood heat technology is being held to a standard of perfection and scrutiny that no other renewable is subjected to, despite that it is highly efficient, meets all state and federal standards for particulate emissions (less than dusty dirt roads), and provides immediate carbon benefits.
We believe that more nuance is needed in this discussion, and a plan to eliminate carbon emissions in New Hampshire should be grounded in local realities.
The transition to a net-zero carbon economy is a complicated enough challenge without completely discarding renewable energy sources that are immediately available, beneficial, affordable and accessible. Low-pollution, high-efficiency, modern wood heating deserves to be considered a good option, along with heat pumps and geothermal heating, in our policy pantheon.