Article source: www.woodheat.org

Wood Energy Economics and Heating Security

Comparing Firewood to Conventional Heating Fuels

Fuelwood is unlike any other mainstream heating fuel, in that users are engaged physically and mentally in its consumption, and for many, in its production as well. Users of oil, gas and electric heating are typically involved only in paying energy bills and adjusting thermostats. As a result, any cost comparison of wood with other fuels is likely to be inaccurate, if not misleading, because it cannot account for either the labour costs or the intangible benefits of wood heating.

Householders considering a switch to wood heating would find it useful to know how much money they might save compared to the use of conventional fuels, in the same way that other major purchases are evaluated. The problem with this approach is that the cost-benefit analysis of wood heating is not easily reduced to a simple matter of money. Considering the rising prices of conventional fuels, it is probably accurate to say that households located outside major urban centres where there is significant forest cover could save money using firewood on a strictly heat-energy-per-dollar basis. But how can the other less tangible costs be evaluated? These costs might include:

  • the space required to store a winter’s supply of firewood outside the house and space inside the house for a few day’s supply
  • the physical strength and stamina required to split, move and stack firewood
  • the time consumed in managing the fuel supply, tending the fire and dealing with regular maintenance tasks like ash removal
  • the impact of the inevitable ‘mess’ of wood chips, bark and wood ash on the time consumed by household cleaning

The intangible benefits are equally difficult to evaluate in monetary terms.

  • the satisfaction one feels in having mastered home heating largely by personal labour and ingenuity
  • the sense of security both in terms of energy price stability and in the ability to remain comfortable in the home during electrical power interruptions
  • the beauty and ambience created by a fire burning behind clear glass doors
  • the special kind of warmth given off by a wood stove located in the main living area (this may be debatable in terms of physics, but it is mentioned by most users of wood fuel as an important benefit)

Several online sites offer fuel cost comparison methods. The calculations are fairly complex, accounting for local fuel pricing, housing type, climate zone, fuel type, appliance type and efficiency. However, a good indication of the imprecision of these calculation methods is that only whole-house heating to an even temperature throughout can be considered. This type of calculation cannot accommodate a wood stove used as a partial or complete heating replacement for a central furnace using conventional fuel. Compared to central heating, the use of a wood stove for space heating, especially if it is located in the main living area, can mean a reduction in heat energy needed by up to 25 percent, regardless of the cost of either fuel.

How Wood Heating Strengthens the Local Economy

Let’s look at some real-world examples of how people save money by heating with wood. Some families buy their firewood already split so their work only involves stacking it to dry. They might spend $250 for each cord (4’x4’x8’), the equivalent of almost $440 in fuel oil at $2.75 a gallon. That family’s savings wouldn’t be large, but they would gain all the tangible and intangible benefits of wood heating.

Small-scale harvesting and processing equipmentSomeone working in his woodlot, harvesting trees and processing them into firewood can save most of the cost of heating using other methods. For him the cost of a winter’s firewood is two week’s work and a few gallons of gas for the saw, splitter and pickup truck. Harvesting and processing the household’s heating fuel can save two or three thousand dollars every year.

What if dozens of households in a small town decided to save money by heating with wood instead of oil? Each of the twenty households would have a few hundred to a few thousands of dollars more to spend around town this year. Every dollar saved through wood heating is another dollar of spending that strengthens the local economy.

Rural areas tend to have large ‘trade deficits’ on consumer goods and most commodities. Their ‘exports’ are usually based on their natural resources such as mining, agricultural and forest products. Revenue from external sources is commonly in the form of tourism and recreation expenditures by non-residents. Overall, as population, industry and political decision-making concentrates in large cities, rural areas have not fared well economically.

A household that produces its own fuelwood supply saves $2,000 or more each year, an amount that can be used to reduce expenses in a household of marginal income, or that can be spent on other goods and services like home improvements. This household trades its own labour for big savings in household operating expenses.

A woodlot owner who produces and sells firewood provides employment and income to the area. If that same producer practices effective management, the quality and value of the woodlot are enhanced at the same time. When a local household buys its winter fuel supply from a neighbour, that transaction has a multiplying effect by keeping the money circulating within the community, increasing local incomes and job creation.

Local economic activity, including jobs and incomes, is increased through the use of fuelwood as a substitute for fuels purchased from outside the community. In a time of uncertainty about the future price and security of supply of conventional energy sources, fuelwood provides some price stability for residents of rural areas, as well as a sense of security because, if necessary, each household could produce its own fuel supply with a relatively small outlay of cash.