Research Report: Heating with wood pellets cuts greenhouse gases

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By Maura Adams

Heating with northern forest wood pellets instead of fossil fuels is a significant way for Mainers to cut their carbon footprints, according to research published recently in the journal Energy. Not only that, switching to wood pellets for heat also brings tremendous benefits to communities. Since northern New England and New York are both heavily forested and heavily dependent on heating oil—we comprise 88% of all U.S. heating oil consumption every year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration—wood pellets present an exciting opportunity for rethinking how we heat.

The nonprofit Northern Forest Center has been advocating for automated wood heating since 2012 because heating with local wood pellets retains wealth in our communities and helps sustain the forest economy. Automated wood pellet heating systems differ from supplemental wood and pellet heating stoves because they entirely replace fossil fuel systems and heat whole buildings—everything from homes to schools and businesses—with little human intervention required. Pellets are delivered and stored in bulk, with the same convenience as oil. Visit www.feelgoodheat.org to learn more about these systems.

As the Center’s wood heat program director, I’ve often fielded questions about the environmental impact of heating with wood pellets, including how it affects climate change. Until recently, the only answer we could give was the intuitive response that “it’s carbon-better.”

In pursuit of an objective, scientific answer to the question, in 2015 we commissioned the nonprofit research firm SIG- NAL (Spatial Informatics Group—Natural Assets Laboratory) to figure out whether people switching from fossil fuels to wood pellets made in the Northern Forest states (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York) were indeed cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and if so by how much.

The SIG-NAL research team, led by John Gunn of Portland, conducted life-cycle analyses for wood pellets, propane, heating oil and natural gas to account for all emissions associated with production and combustion. The researchers gathered detailed production data from nine of the region’s 10 pellet mills and used an advanced life-cycle assessment tool to also account for the carbon stocks in the forests being harvested.

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The analysis, available from the publication Energy, shows that switching from oil to automated wood heat cuts greenhouse gas emissions by 54% immediately and by 62% at the 50-year mark. These findings are especially relevant to Maine homeowners, who use a higher proportion of heating oil than any other state according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The comparison to natural gas found similar results, with pellets cutting greenhouse gases 59% from day one and by 67% after 50 years.

These greenhouse gas reductions come from switching to a fully automated, wood pellet heating system that enables the building owner to stop using fossil fuels for heat. But if you can’t switch to an automated wood heat system, you can still reduce your greenhouse gas impact by using a conventional pellet stove, which helps you reduce your fossil fuel consumption. In either case, using wood pellets from northern New England or New York is key; their climate impact is less than pellets from elsewhere that are transported long distances to the mill and to the end user.

The study also shows that the mills serving the Northern Forest make their pellets, on average, 44% from sawdust and scraps from sawmills and wood product manufacturers. This means nearly half the wood fiber going into pellets is recovered waste from manufacturing some other wood product, which significantly lowers the greenhouse gas impact of heating with wood pellets.

On top of the research that shows switching to local and efficient wood pellet heat is good for the climate, there are other reasons for socially-minded consumers to choose it over fossil fuels. Demand for wood pellets supports forest stewardship and jobs in forestry and logging, and it keeps Mainers’ heating dollars near home, circulating in the local economy. Maine has lost 36 percent of its low-grade wood market in the last three years due to the closure of five paper mills, and directing some of that wood into pellet production helps sustain Maine’s important forest economy.

Switch to automated wood heat today and you’ll know you’re reducing greenhouse gas, supporting your community, and helping to keep Maine’s forests intact so they can help mitigate climate change.

For more information about the greenhouse gas study, please visit the Northern Forest Center website at www.northernforest.org.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Maura Adams is a program director for the Northern Forest Center, a nonprofit that builds economic and community vitality while fostering sound forest stewardship across the Northern Forest of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.

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This article first appeared in the spring & summer 2018 issue of Green & Healthy Maine Homes magazine.
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