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The Politics of Wood Heating

It may seem a strange title for a commentary about a form of home heating that is often seen as quaint and dated. But if politics is the process by which we decide how to manage our lives together, then yes, there certainly is a politics of wood heating. Some people heat with wood and like it, and other people think it is a terrible way to heat houses, and there you have the makings of a contest of ideas and therefore politics.

Those of a certain age may recall that thirty years ago firewood was considered a renewable energy resource. Governments assigned responsibility to departments of energy, and the message to the public was ‘burn wood, but do it safely’. This was in the wake of an energy crisis and governments were desperate to wean us off costly heating oil.

Fifteen years later in the mid-1990s, responsibility had shifted to environment departments who said ‘burn less wood because it is a source of pollution’. Environment departments promoted upgrades from old smoky stoves to low-emission models, but refrained from encouraging anyone to choose wood as a home heating fuel. Energy departments had gone virtually silent on the matter of wood heating, and besides, they had no staff expertise to back up anything they might say.

Environment Canada says: “To effectively eliminate pollution from residential wood heating, you would have to refrain from burning wood altogether.” The same could be said for virtually all other energy sources, but the government doesn't mention that, which makes this a political statement.

A further transition seems to be underway now as health departments and nongovernmental organizations are saying ‘Don’t burn wood because the smoke is toxic and there is no safe level’. We see this shift in government departmental responsibility as evidence of an unspoken political transition from promotion of wood heating, albeit with conditions, to outright rejection of wood as an appropriate heating option.

A regional health department prepared a nice looking fact sheet on wood burning that contained a pointed message on how to avoid health problems related to wood smoke: “The best way to reduce exposure to wood smoke is to avoid burning wood! If you do not burn now-do not start! If you do burn wood, consider switching to a natural gas fireplace, which has much lower emissions than the most efficient woodstoves.”

Regional lung associations have provided some effective public information on wood smoke, although a representative of the Quebec Lung Association went a little over the top when he was quoted as saying that smoke from wood-burning stoves is “a silent killer; it’s killing our children.”

These well-meaning health agencies don’t know much about energy or small town and rural life. They look narrowly at wood smoke and assume it is inherent with the use of firewood. They have no technical context for their views. Their stance seems to be more political or ideological rather than technical or analytical. Health agencies tend to show little interest in learning more about the subject, their minds having been made up in advance.

The dust-up over wood smoke pits environment and health agencies of government, as well as a host of non-governmental groups, against the individuals who burn wood. Needless to say, people who heat with wood don’t belong to a powerful user’s group that sends lobbyists to the capital cities the way that, for example, hunters and gun owners do.

Until recently almost all interaction with government agencies on the subject of wood burning involved the industry trade group, the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, whose mandate is to protect the commercial interests of its members. But now a new non-governmental organization has entered the field, bringing a refreshingly non-commercial and political tone to the conversation. Founded in 2009 near Washington D.C. and headed by John Ackerly, a serious fellow with decades of experience in NGO management and social justice, the Alliance for Green Heat has already made its presence felt.

The Alliance has laid out some clear policy objectives that set it apart from any other group we know of. For example, this group doesn’t hesitate to mention that low income families in rural areas are a significant but mainly neglected constituency in energy discussions. Ackerly’s group wants governments to “Recognize the leadership of low and middle-income Americans in fighting climate change through the long-term, sustainable use of biomass heat” (by which they mean natural firewood and wood pellets). They also want to “Demonstrate that the benefits of biomass heat are on par with solar, wind and geothermal to lower residential carbon footprints”. These are admirable statements that we don’t hear other groups making in quite the same way.

The Alliance is aggressive in promoting cleaner burning wood heating appliances and is in the thick of EPA’s current initiative to revise and expand the rules that made low-emission certification mandatory for wood stoves in 1988. It has adopted a particularly firm stance on conventional outdoor wood boilers which are notorious for making a lot of smoke. In some areas, anger over pollution from outdoor boilers has led to a generalized condemnation of all wood heating, which makes the Alliance’s (and our) task of promoting responsible wood heating a lot more difficult.

The Alliance for Green Heat as a welcome and necessary voice in the promotion and defence of responsible home heating with wood.

Since it went online in 1996, the Wood Heat Organization has offered readers ‘how to’ advice on wood heating, as highlighted by our up-front tag line: “We can help you to burn wood better.” But widespread criticism of wood burning in the mainstream media and in activist web sites, as well as an increasingly negative tone among government agencies, convinced us that we needed to reach out to the media and government agencies to speak up for responsible users of firewood and offer a balanced view of the issues. We see The Woodpile as being at least partly political because it seeks to engage all active stakeholders and the public in a discussion of where wood heating fits in our energy future.

Here are the strongest political statements we can think of for why wood should not be rejected as an option for residential heating:

  • Firewood is a renewable energy source that we can use forever, provided we manage the forests sustainably.
  • It is an indigenous resource at a time when imported energy is a serious concern.
  • Firewood is easily accessible to those who live in forested areas outside large cities.
  • Wood heating provides household security in two ways. It provides heating security when storms cause the electric power to fail in winter. It also provides security when family incomes are cut due to layoffs; if need be a family can scavenge their winter heating fuel supply at very low cost.
  • Firewood is an economical heating fuel for those living at the urban fringe and beyond.
  • Firewood has the highest energy return on energy invested of any heating fuel.
  • Firewood is a local fuel since it is normally used close to where the trees were harvested. These days ‘foodies’ promote the hundred mile diet. Wood is the hundred mile (or less) heating fuel.
  • The trade in firewood strengthens rural and small town economies, many of which have been hit hard by globalization and the de-industrialization of North America. The re-circulation of money spent on firewood within a local economy puts people to work and supports small businesses.
  • Those of us who heat with wood are continuously accountable for our actions because the results are visible at the top of our chimneys.

Offsetting those positive attributes of wood heating is one serious negative: when done badly, wood heating can make a lot of smoke.

Considering all its positives, is it too much to ask that we find the political will to resolve the one negative aspect of wood heating?

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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