Article source: www.woodheat.org

An Essential Resource

By any measure, wood is an important residential energy resource, especially outside large urban areas. Over 10 million US households, just under 10 per cent of the total, use wood as their main heating fuel or to supplement other heating fuels. Over 25 per cent of Canadian households burn wood.

Well-stacked piles of firewood are a comforting sight.A drive through small towns and down country roads in forested regions confirms that fuelwood is a significant energy resource. The long lines of piled firewood standing in yards serve as proof. Every winter the wood is cut from woodlots and every spring it is split and stacked to dry in the summer sun. In the fall it is moved to the house and stacked again, and in winter it keeps families cosy warm. It is a seasonal ritual that has recurred year in and year out for decades, 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 paper explores how wood burning contributes to the prosperity of rural communities, 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 knock against wood heating, so it is best to deal with it first.

The problem of smoke pollution from residential wood burning has been debated since the resurgence of wood as a fuel after the oil crisis of the 1970s. Because it contains toxic chemicals and known carcinogens, wood smoke is unhealthy to breathe in high concentrations and even in low concentrations can be harmful to children, the elderly and those with lung diseases or allergies. There are three aspects of wood smoke pollution that can be considered: nuisance smoke caused by a neighbor, airshed contamination caused when many households make too much smoke in a confined area like a river valley, and indoor air pollution caused when a wood burning appliance spills smoke into the house.

Firewood was seen as a renewable resource, but now it is linked to pollution.

In the aftermath of the first oil crisis in the late 1970s, governments supported the public’s return to wood as a home heating fuel. At the time it was seen as one strategy to reduce dependence on expensive imported oil. However, a gradual policy shift has occurred since then. Positive statements about firewood’s status as a renewable energy source and its role in reducing net greenhouse gas emissions are less common and more qualified in government documents than previously. To the extent that governments deal at all with the issue of wood heating, the concern tends to be more with pollution abatement than with encouragement.

Statements by both government and nongovernmental health agencies frequently include lengthy statements about the hazardous chemical constituents of wood smoke. They offer lists of compounds like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, dioxins and furans and acrolein. The use of intimidating technical terms without offering contextual information makes these detailed statements quite beyond the ability of the average reader to comprehend or interpret. For example, context could be provided in the form of a list of chemicals emitted by a city bus or a backyard barbecue, which are similarly odious sounding. Government personnel insist that statements listing the chemicals found in wood smoke are simply intended to inform the public, but it might equally be said that this communications tactic reveals an underlying intention to dissuade the public from using wood fuel, especially considering that no other energy source receives this kind of treatment in public information.

It is not the intention here to minimize the environmental impacts of wood heating or attempt to deflect concerns by highlighting pollution from other energy sources. But a balanced assessment of benefits and risks is called for when any energy source is evaluated or compared to other sources, especially by government agencies. Too often, those who have concerns about the wisdom of wood heating fail to understand or communicate that all energy sources, including renewables like wind and solar, have impacts on the environment. To single out one energy source for condemnation without providing supporting evidence or contextual information is unhelpful and unlikely to sway a justifiably sceptical public.

The haze of wood smoke across a highway in the morningThe problem of wood smoke from residential heating is serious in some places and under some conditions, and it is important that the public understand the risks and the ways to minimize them. The three dimensions of wood smoke pollution – airshed contamination, nuisance neighbours, and indoor air pollution – should be addressed through public information and, where necessary, regulation. To be successful in changing minds and behaviours, any government action should be developed in full recognition that people who heat with wood tend to be sceptical of experts or governments meddling with their personal wood heating practices.

Up next, part 3: Advanced burners and equipment.

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