| Feb 12, 2009

Back to HomeEditorial - February 12, 2009 In defence of wood heatEditorial by Jeff Green This week's warm weather has been a great relief for many of us who have been beaten down by three months of nearly constant cold weather.

For people who heat with wood, the romance of the cracking fire wears pretty thin in February, after 3½ months of hauling wood in, hauling ash out, cleaning chimney pipes, and watching a once healthy woodpile dwindle.

At the same time, there have been calls in urban areas to put in new rules about wood stoves, because of concerns over emissions. There have even been calls to ban wood stoves entirely. It's bad enough struggling with wood all winter, but to be responsible for killing the planet at the same time is a bit too much to take.

Luckily there are other ways to look at wood smoke.

Paul Grogan, a Queen's Biology professor who lives in Kingston, has begun burning wood in a high efficiency stove to supplement the use of natural gas in his 3,200 square foot home in Kingston.

He has used himself as a test subject for a study some of his students are doing on the relative cost and environmental impacts in comparison study between heating entirely with natural gas and using a combination of wood/gas. An academic paper based on his experience will be published later this year, but some of the results were revealed in a talk he gave a couple of weeks ago.

He has used wood for about 60% of his heating needs, and while he found minimal monetary savings, only about $50 a year (he sourced his wood from Battersea and paid $240 per cubic cord of mixed hardwood, which included some birch) he calculated that the cuts in green house emissions were substantial.

The reason is that he determined that burning wood is neutral as far as its carbon footprint.

Wood smoke can be a dirty, high carbon smoke, (less so with a stove that has a catalytic converter). However, there are two other factors with wood. When a mature tree is removed from a hardwood forest, it stimulates the growth of smaller trees, increasing the ability of the forest to act as a carbon sink.

If, however, the tree is left to its own devices, it will die and rot, releasing as much green house gases as go up the chimney from a wood stove. So, if the tree is going to create gas anyway, why not get some heat out of it? For these reasons, Grogan concluded that wood heat has a net zero greenhouse impact.

There are other aspects of wood heat that Grogan did not cover in his study, which is focussed on a more urban experience than a rural one.

Harvesting wood is a relatively simple prospect. A logger needs large machinery, to be sure, but nothing so massive as an oil rig, or a coal or nuclear fired power plant, or a natural gas pipeline. Wood does not need refining; it only needs to sit out in the sun.

Every household that burns wood generates local employment, simply by heating their home. People who buy wood keep local logging operators going, and while many retailers have had a hard time in recent years, selling and repairing chain saws and other equipment, as well as ATVs, has been a good business to be in.

Wages are low in rural Ontario. It is hard to make enough money to keep going, but for many people wood is cheap because it can be accessed. There may not be enough money around for a tank of oil, but anyone with a chainsaw and a bit of land is able to keep their feet warm.

Wood heat is not for everyone. One of the things that Paul Grogan noted in his study is that people he interviewed in Kingston did not consider the amount of work involved in wood heat as a major factor. But the amount of work involved in wood heat is certainly a factor, and wood heat is only for a limited number of people.

However, as we consider ways to keep our rural economies viable, government grants to help people invest in better wood stoves and furnaces, as part of the green infrastructure initiatives that are all the rage these days, would make sense.

If a few hundred people in this region switched from oil or electric to wood heat, there would be jobs created, and that's what all of this deficit spending is supposed to be about. 

Support local
independant journalism by becoming a patron of the Frontenac News.