Wood Heat: Renewable Energy That Gets No Respect

Wood Heat: Renewable Energy That Gets No Respect

Image CC licensed by Flickr user woodleywonderworks

No Silicon Valley venture capitalist has invested in it.

Government subsidies for it are skimpy, at best.

It lacks clout in Washington.

And it's been around forever.

Yet it's by far the most popular form of renewable energy used at home, dwarfing the impact of rooftop solar panels and appealing not just to well-to-do greens but to poor people, African-Americans and, we'd bet, climate change deniers, too.

Yep, I'm talking about -- as Popular Mechanics put it recently -- the "high-tech, cutting-edge, carbon-neutral alternative fuel of the future: wood."

About 80 percent of residential renewable energy is created by wood heat appliances (not including fireplaces), while just 15 percent comes from solar and 5 percent from geothermal, according to Energy Information Administration statistics provided by the Alliance for Green Heat, a small nonprofit created two years ago to promote environmentally-friendly wood heat. Some 15 million American homes use wood as a primary or secondary heat source.

Of course, there's nothing new about wood heat. Wood supplied more energy than fossil fuels in the U.S. until the 1880s, when it was displaced by coal and, more recently, natural gas, oil and electricity.

What's new is the arrival of modern high-efficiency wood stoves, as well as a fast-growing wood pellet industry, that enable either cordwood or wood pellets to be burned more cleanly that before, dramatically reducing emissions of soot. Here's a look at one:

Provided the wood burned in these stoves comes from waste or from well-managed forests, it can then be deemed an environmentally friendly fuel. Wood is already seen that way in much of western Europe, according to this 2009 article in Science [subscription req'd] which argued that "sustainable wood energy offers recurring economic, social, and environmental benefits."

"We're the only modern, industrialized country that hasn't looked at wood as a serious way to reduce fossil fuels," says John Ackerly, who started the Alliance for Green Heat two years ago.

Last week, I met with Ackerly, a lawyer and former human rights activist. (He worked for the International Campaign for Tibet for 21 years, including 10 years as its president.) Wood heat, he argues, is a social justice and jobs issue, as well as an environmental solution. It's a low-cost and low-carbon way to heat homes. It's a "green" technology that appeals to poor and working class people. And, because gathering and distributing wood is labor intensive, it generates economic activity.

So why haven't you heard much about wood heat? One reason, surely, is that the industry is very fragmented -- there's no association of the guys who deliver firewood -- and therefore not organized to make its voice heard in Washington. Wood stove manufacturers are part of a trade group called the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, which pretty much tells you all you need to know about its influence inside the Beltway.

Yet the firewood industry, Ackerly estimates, is substantial, with about $3 billion in revenues. "It's about the size of the U.S. wine industry," he told me. "It's probably the only $3 billion industry that doesn't have a lobbyist in town."

Ackerly, who is 53 and lives in Takoma Park, Md., practices what he preaches. He's got an efficient wood stove, and he fuels it by gathering waste wood from trees cut down in his neighborhood. "I haven't bought wood in 15 years," he says. But he admits that keeping the fire burning requires some effort. "You have to split the wood, and stack it," he says. "You have to either enjoy it -- or have no other choice."

Popular Mechanics calculated the annual costs of heating a house using various fuels and estimated wood at $1,299, just below natural gas, which is a historically low levels, and well below fuel oil, propane gas and electricity. Stoves costs $3,000 to $4,200, including installation.

Wood stoves are most popular (obviously) in colder climates and (not so obviously) among poor people. Arkansas and West Virginia, for example, are big wood burning states. Ackerly says: "It's actually poor people in this country who are at the forefront of not using fossil fuels, and they're doing it without getting any money back."

One of Ackerly's goals at the Alliance for Green Heat is to get wood heat recognized as a form of renewable energy deserving of government support. Homeowners installing solar panels are eligible for 30 percent tax credits, which are often coupled with state incentives. The buyer of an electric car gets a $7,500 tax credit. Whatever you think of those incentives, they flow mostly to the well-to-do. By contrast, wood stoves get a maximum tax credit of $300.

"Basically, low and middle income people are excluded (from renewable energy subsidies) because they can't afford solar or geothermal," he said. If the goal is to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, a dollar spent on wood buys more greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions than competing clean technologies, he said. It's way more effective than turning biomass in the form of corn into ethanol. The drawback of burning wood is that even efficient stoves produce some particulate pollution, so they should not be used in places like Los Angeles or Denver, where smog remains a problem. "It's not for everyone and it's not for everywhere," Ackerly said.

But as is so often the case with environmental or health problems -- think about excessive packaging, or overly-processed foods -- solutions lie not in some futuristic technology but in the past.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user woodleywonderworks.