Signs of Sustainability: Heat locally to benefit yourself, your community, and the planet

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Do you know where your home’s heat comes from? Most of us burn something—usually, gas, oil, or propane—but most of us are blissfully unaware of where that fuel comes from. Many people are becoming more aware of where their food comes from—from the lettuce we grow in our yards to the local beef we buy. The benefits of “eating local” are well-known, but few of us are aware of all the benefits of “heating local” with wood.*


Many of the benefits are the same: supporting local businesspeople and the environment, reducing transportation miles, and creating a connection between consumers and “farmers” (in this case, forest owners and loggers). While responsible farming practices minimize environmental damage, responsible forestry goes a step further by providing many other environmental benefits, including actually improving forest health. Not only do foresters manage stands by clearing out low-quality trees that are shading healthier and more valuable trees, but by doing so, along with other good forestry practices, responsible forestry can lead to improved biodiversity, help control invasive and non-native species, and result in greater carbon capture by allowing younger trees to develop.


But doesn’t burning wood release all of that carbon into the atmosphere—which is exactly what we’re trying to avoid?! Yes, but also no. Burning wood releases carbon that is already in the earth’s carbon cycle. Compared to heating with a fossil fuel, burning wood is widely considered carbon-neutral or at least very-low carbon. And in NY we have plenty of wood to heat our homes.


In fact, forests across New York State are regrowing at a rate of more than 2.5 times the harvest rate. And most of the state’s forests are overgrown with brush and “low-quality” trees because nearly all of our forests were clearcut at one time and have since grown back not particularly healthy. Responsible forest management could turn what are essentially weed-infested patches of yard into healthy and productive gardens.


Further, local heat provides a mechanism for better forest management by supporting a market for waste wood. Most forestry across the state is for forest products, such as hardwood lumber or flooring, which creates a tremendous amount of waste. Firewood is usually sourced from low-quality trees that surround valuable hardwood trees, while wood pellets are made almost entirely from the off-cuts and sawdust that remain after turning a log into lumber.


It’s also important to responsibly burn the wood in order to avoid negative impacts such as air pollution. Today’s wood-based heating equipment is not your grandfather’s wood stove. Since 1990, wood stoves have been held to relatively low emissions levels (<7.5 grams per hour), and as of 2020, while there is some nuance to the rules, essentially all wood heating equipment, including pellet stoves, will have to be even cleaner-burning (2.0 g/h). Through design improvements, many wood and pellet stoves already on the market have emissions levels of below 1.0 g/h.


Usually, wood and pellet stoves are thought of as space heaters, but in an energy-efficient home, they can become the primary source of heat. Once a drafty home is air-sealed and the insulation upgraded, the old boiler or furnace is almost always oversized for the new heating demands, making a wood or pellet stove a great choice. No matter what you’re heating with, reducing the amount of heat you need is always the first step; it is where you will see your biggest savings while making your home more comfortable (for more information, visit ccetompkins.org/energy).


For heating larger spaces (including commercial buildings), you may want to consider a high-efficiency wood pellet boiler or furnace. Today’s pellet boilers and furnaces have a full suite of advanced controls to ensure a clean, efficient burn. And with bulk delivery of pellets, you’ll have all the convenience of a traditional boiler or furnace, but utilize a renewable fuel that can be locally sourced and costs about half as much as oil or propane.


There are still very significant state incentives available, too. For pellet stoves, there is a $1500 rebate (income-qualified residents receive $2000 plus an additional $500 if recycling an old wood stove); for small commercial and residential pellet boilers, the incentive is 45% of the installed cost (up to $16,000 for systems <120kBtu/h and $36,000 for systems <300kBtu), with an additional $5,000 available if recycling an old wood boiler.


The Energy Outreach Team at CCE Tompkins is working with a program led by the Northern Forest Center to educate about the benefits of automated wood pellet boilers. Stay tuned for Feel Good Heat outreach and activities starting in early 2019 (see FeelGoodHeat.org). Or contact us anytime to see how you can start “heating locally”!


*Heat pumps, which use electricity very efficiently, are another great option, but here we’re talking about heating with wood, the original local renewable resource. We have some information on heat pumps at ccetompkins.org/energy or visit HeatSmartTompkins.org.

This is the latest installment of the Signs of Sustainability series produced by Sustainable Tompkins. For more information about the organization, visit their website at SustainableTompkins.org.

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