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23 Sep 2010

Bring Me The Woodburning Stove of Alfredo Garcia….

As someone who was just weeks away from installing a woodstove into my house, I was fascinated, as well as somewhat horrified, to read an excellent paper by Nick Grant and Alan Clarke called ‘Biomass – a burning issue’, published by the Association of Environment Conscious Builders (AECB).  Their arguments are convincing.  They open with a quote from David Olivier, who writes that “biomass boilers are an expensive way to make climate change worse and reverse over a century of public health improvements”.  Strong words.  The writers, both of whom heat their homes using wood, set out to investigate whether Olivier was right, rather, I sense, hoping he wasn’t.  “It would have been much easier not to write this”, they state, but on balance, I am deeply grateful that they did, as it is a fascinating and very important piece of work.

They argue that given the upsurge of interest in biomass, what one might call “The Dash for Logs”, the use of biomass boilers increasing 25% in 2 years, and Government promoting it as zero carbon fuel, it is time to stop and take check of what this would actually look like were it scaled up significantly.  They highlight two main concerns.

The first is “is biomass really low carbon?”  The argument usually goes that burning wood is carbon neutral because trees absorb the carbon emitted by burning wood.  This, however, they argue is a flawed way of looking at it.  The time when we need to cut emissions is now (well 30 years ago actually), not in 20 years when a tree is locking up carbon.  As one of the few natural ways we have of taking carbon out of the atmosphere, to burn wood, they argue, is the worst thing to do with it.  It is much more sensible to store that carbon indefinitely by using the wood for building, in furniture etc.  Burning wood actually produces carbon emissions similar to those of burning coal, twice those of burning natural gas, as well as all the attendent problems of particulate emissions.

They argue that a better approach would be to use the natural gas far more efficiently, and see wood as a way of absorbing emissions from burning that gas, rather than burning the wood itself.  Also, wood that is still growing still absorbs more CO2 than newly planted or newly felled forests, which actually emit more carbon than they sequester. At a time, they argue, when what should be being promoted is the growing of timber to lock up carbon, and then the long term storage of that carbon in buildings, the incentives through policy and various grants are to burn it.

Their second concern centres around lack of available supply, in effect asking the question “Can Britain Heat Itself?” from its indigenous resource.  they cite estimates of sustainable biomass energy potential as being around 10% of total energy use, and the available resouce globally is contracting rather than expanding.  Even sequestering the emissions caused by burning gas through the planting of new trees is not, they argue up to the job, trying to do so to sequester emissions from wood burning is simply not going to work… they write “our point is the biomass is a lot worse than we thought, not that gas is a lot better”.

This leads on to a discussion of energy security, something of great interest to Transition Culture readers.  Would a big rise in the use of biomass, the installation of many hundreds of thousands of woodstoves lead to the UK being more energy secure?  They argue not, that actually timber as a fuel is a more limited resource, and that ‘peak wood’ would arrive sooner than peak gas.  Indeed the last historic occurence of ‘peak wood’ was only overcome “with the grudging acceptance of coal as a replacement for biomass”.  Those who already heat their homes with wood are seeing steep rises in the prices of wood, some providers importing timber from overseas in order to meet demand.  “Suddenly”, they write, “Russian gas feels like the secure option!”

So where does their paper leave us?  They conclude that “the only sure source of energy in an uncertain future is what Amory Lovins called Negawatts – that is “energy conserved or not required thanks to radical energy efficiency measures”.  In my own home, this paper has prompted a rethink.  Rather than installing a woodstove, would that money be better spent on maximising energy efficiency throughout the building?  What else could we do?  I am getting quotes for a range of things and will lay my dilemmas out in front of you all soon for your thoughts…. but there is, as they say, no such thing as a free lunch.

For me, some of this comes back to the debates about community-focused responses and self-focused ones.  If everyone installs woodburning stoves, might we end up back in the age of smogs?  Already on my street 3 homes have them, and you can tell when they are lit.  Are we better to explore group solutions, anaerobic digestion for example, which might still be able to supply us with gas (albeit to far more efficient homes than at present) or other large scale renewables, rather than all fracturing down into small off-the-grid bubbles?

There is no way of keeping warm, illuminated and entertained that doesn’t involve emitting carbon in some way, and the real savings and reductions only come from learning to live well with less.  Certainly looking back at where we have reduced energy use over the last few years, it has mostly come from mindfulness, turning things off, turning things down and from improved insulation.  First thing I did after reading this was to track down a windows engineer who came and overhauled my 15 year-old PVC double glazed doors which have, over time, twisted and shifted so that in winter cold winds rattle through them.  Now they are beautifully tight and sealed and will make a big difference over the winter.  Not straightforward is it, any of this?

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.

59 Comments

John Mason
23 Sep 10:25am

One thing – probably deserving of a post itself – is to define what constitutes “warm” and “cold”.

People will have widely varying definitions of these terms. Some don’t mind putting on a second thick padded shirt, woolly jumper etc. Others at the opposite end of the spectrum insist on being able to wear shorts & t-shirt indoors all year round. It’d be interesting to see peoples’ thoughts on these extremes and where they fit in on the scale.

The wood I burn is stuff that has either blown down or is washed up on the local beaches. Either way, burning is about the only use for it and it’s going to release its carbon anyway via rotting. But as one of the “extra padded shirt” brigade, I don’t get through a lot, unless I have guests, in order to avoid killing them off via hypothermia LOL!

Cheers – John

Andrew Ramponi
23 Sep 11:22am

The sustainability bandwagon is on full steam. Here in Fife there is a biomass plant going through the planning process. The headlines are full of all the good words “low carbon”, “renewable” etc. But, the detail is not appealing.

The plant will burn 1.3 million tonnes of biomass a year, and produce around 120MW of electricity. Approximate biomass production, in temperate areas, is around 10tonnes/hectare/yr. So the plant requires an area devoted solely to biomass for burning of around 130,000 hectares – about the area of Fife. The plant will deliver an average of 432,000MWhr of electricity a year; the regions average electricity consumption is about 1,600,000MWhr.

So, an area the size of Fife to produce less than 1/3 of the regions electricity consumption. And this is only one biomass plant out of many in the pipeline. Yes maybe if the heat is used it looks better, but still not great. Just where will it all come from?

It seems more and more that this zero carbon policy is just another distraction from using less energy. Dig it up, chop it down and burn it. Onwards and upwards.

Ciaran Mundy
23 Sep 11:23am

Good peice, thanks for posting.

“Not straightforward is it, any of this?

Not sure if that was a rhetoricl question?

We need to use far less energy by doing less of the things that require energy AND being far more efficient.

When Alfredo says it’s complicated, maybe he means difficult to accept? We complicate the issue by delving into a mire of details on different technologies that we hope will make reality go away. . . The endless search for that “free lunch” or ‘win win’

I know many people, who should know better, arguing we need a comprehensive list of the technologies that everyone can buy into that will make our current lives sustainable.

A sustainable life looks, feels, tastes and smells very different.

Tim Chatterton
23 Sep 11:34am

“If everyone installs woodburning stoves, might we end up back in the age of smogs?”

To some extent – the smogs were mainly caused by coal burning – so the smoke had a high sulphur content making it very acid. There is a very significant threat to air quality in terms of particles (PM10) and nitrogen oxides from the increase in biomass burning.

Over the last few years there has been a real effort from the air pollution community to stop a mindless stampede towards installing biomass unthinkingly. The problems come not just from the emissions from boilers themselves but also from the fact that rather than coming down a pipe or wire, the energy is delivered by Heavy Goods Vehicle. What is also interesting to note is that many public sector installations have been put in schools and hospitals (children and old and ill people are the most sensitive to air pollution problems!).

Anyone interested in further information on the potential conflicts between climate change and air quality, and biomass in particular may be interested in the following:

Defra: Air Quality in a Changing Climate
http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/quality/air/airquality/strategy/documents/air-pollution.PDF

Environmental Protection UK & LACORS Biomass Guidance
http://www.environmental-protection.org.uk/biomass/

London Councils ‘Review of the Potential Impact on Air Quality from Increased Wood Fuelled Biomass Use in London
http://www.londoncouncils.gov.uk/transport/briefings/ReviewofthePotentialImpactonAirQualityfromIncreasedWoodFuelledBiomassUseinLondon.htm?showpage=-1

The basic line is “The right technology in the right place” – so if you live in a town then absolutely not* – if you live in a rural area with an extremely extensive wood supply that you manage yourself in order to provide your own wood then yes it may well be a sensible option – plenty of grey area in between. The Woodland Management tour at this year’s Transition Conference looked at the sort of area of land needed to provide a constant fuels supply to heat a house – it wasn’t small!

Tim.
(*If you feel you really must then ensure that you use a stove that is designed to be used within a smoke control area – both to reduce pollution and prevent potential trouble from the council – more info on Smoke Control Areas can be found here – http://smokecontrol.defra.gov.uk/).

Andy Simmonds
23 Sep 11:37am

“For me, some of this comes back to the debates about community-focused responses and self-focused ones….If everyone installs woodburning stoves, might we end up back in the age of smogs?… Are we better to explore group solutions,…rather than all fracturing down into small off-the-grid bubbles?”

For me, Rob, this is the main lesson here (aside from raising the issues around Industrialising the burning of biomass). AECB is working with David Olivier to develop another broader discussion paper that, working from first principles and good science, seeks to outline an affordable, sustainable energy strategy for the UK, based of course around ‘negawatts’ – looking again at some aspects of CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain report. It will hopefully inform this balance between individual and communal. Generally I cant agree strongly enough with you – individual solutions are great for pioneering and testing and inspiring and then honest feedback is v important for communal learning, but we are going to need to develop more solutions for heat (and power of course) at local level and push those local councils much harder to help us – or it simply wont gel for society – as the biomass paper implies – you can’t safely or fairly massively scale up existing green ideas and solutions. I have refurbished my victorian brick home to near passivhaus levels (yes, monitored for proven performance feedback) but if I had had my way, my local area would be supplied with most of its heat and power using local sewage works gas + a few nearby fields full of solar thermal panels /large heat store. I wouldn’t have had to insulate my home quite so radically if that was in place, and nor will all my neighbours! I am aware that I an effective individual solution, but one that in a town at least is not widely applicable. For sustainable communal solutions in Hereford the barrier is the way the council does business. In this county I am putting my faith in the new ‘Its Our County’ political party – supported by the Greens, that is aiming to ‘bring back democracy to Herefordshire’! So I think that Herefordshire has time to develop some affordable communal solutions integrated with less onerous and more equitable individual solutions – in anticipation of being supported by a future IOC administration. If the current incumbents pick up the challenge great, however all their energy is focused on pushing through the scary Local Development Framework (LDF) based on a ‘growth agenda’ that is deeply unsustainable and that threatens to lock away sustainable future options due to its proposed designation of land and long term financial commitments. Its imminent establishment may perhaps become less scary – because I have been told, it could be overturned by a new administration (need to check that out though!).

Useful website that might inspire town dwellers to think again about putting a woodstove in, and instead invest in Negawatts) : http://www.retrofitforthefuture.org/ & the Hereford house (no woodstove): http://www.retrofitforthefuture.org/search.php?s=enerphit
Sorry if this post was too off subject!

Brad K.
23 Sep 12:01pm

Two thoughts. First is that you continually refer to biomass for fuel, yet consider only wood for fuel.

Field corn is used for a reasonably efficient home heating fuel, in some homes. Others use the cobs. The grain itself gets into food supply and energy cost issues, but using plants to convert solar energy to fuel is certainly “appropriate” technology.

What about grasses, corn stalk, and weeds? Has anyone looked into converting non-wood products to biomass charcoal, for fuel or for garden or field soil amendment? The volatiles produced by charcoaling might be another source of fuel, either for the charcoaling process or home or other heating, with suitable care for safety.

The other comment I have is about failure to consider alternatives to single family dwellings. Yes, we have apartments and condominiums that conserve outer wall exposure – but they still enshrine the single family (often single adult) residence. What about a straw-bale or stone (as in, meter thick or more) stone or stone-faced-rubble walls about a dormitory or cubicle-style residence?

Whatever fuel source you end up with, remember that window shades can be a significant tool in your home’s energy profile. Open the shades for warming in the day or cooling at night, close the shades to reduce warming in sunlight and reduce heat loss at night. Perhaps even full board-type shutters might be worth retrieving from the dustbin of the history of cheap energy affluence.

And I believe there is a low-energy or external energy-free style of building that maintains a livable temperature. Sorry, I forget the reference, but it is a different style of building, taking advantage of facing the sun instead of the local street – living sustainably means challenging a *lot* of “era of cheap energy” assumptions, such as building a home to fit between others rather than oriented for good energy profile.

Stephen Watson
23 Sep 12:15pm

I’d pondered over this too for ages, along the lines of “We have too much CO2 in the atmosphere already, burning wood is going to add even more of it”. Of course if it releases less that what would have been released by the alternative heat source then it’s OK.

We obviously need to heat our homes but the thing that is beloved of almost all politicians and most environmentalists is to focus on renewable energy. Always on supply and rarely demand and this is because a focus on supply is a great way to avoid changing our behaviour. Changing your car from petrol to battery requires no change in behaviour – it’s just buying more stuff as we’ve been trained since the age or 7 or so. Considering if the journey is even necessary, or if it could be made by public transport, cycle or foot is a reduction of demand and is therefore not very good for advertisers or business. So go and buy your electric car.

Demand reduction is the key as Rob has already realised by changing his windows. The questions is, what do the millions of us in rented accommodation do? No woodburning stove. No super insulation. No double glazing. No water butts. No rainwater harvesting? No solar panels? It’s a BIG question that rarely seems to get much attention.

Tim
23 Sep 12:27pm

“The questions is, what do the millions of us in rented accommodation do?”

Sadly the political view on this seems to be that as we live in a market, you choose to rent a poorly insulated house so that is your fault – if everyone only chose to rent well insulated properties then landlords would soon get the message. (yeah right!)

One of the key problems is the disincentive for landlords to pay for improvements when it is the tenant (and the planet) that benefit from the energy savings. There may be ways round this with Pay As You Save schemes – like the promised Green Deal.

In the meantime – rent strikes?

Martin
23 Sep 12:41pm

Another problem is that due to demand for seasoned wood, some wood is now being seasoned for wood burners by heating it in gas fired furnaces. So we have the double whammy of the CO2 from the gas used to season the wood, and then again when the wood is burnt – utter madness.

Of course, if the population was smaller, so would be the problem – but that’s another debate!

Thom Illingworth
23 Sep 2:18pm

There is a difference between a renewable resource and a sustainable resource. I like to consider wood as a sustainable resource for items that are durable and enduring. Wood is not sustainable as a fuel source on a regional, national, or global scale. We would all burn it up faster than we could grow it. Consider how much cord wood is needed to heat a home each year. How long has it taken to grow the wood needed to heat a home each year? Can you plant enough trees in your yard to replenish it annually? Is there enough land to grow trees to supply cord wood in significant amounts for large scale wood-burning heaters? If good wood takes (let’s say) 20 years to grow to a mature size, shouldn’t we be making things with the wood that last at least 20 years (homes, furniture, artwork, etc.)?

frisbee
23 Sep 3:07pm

Great writing Rob :-) Some comments though.

1. Insulation is the first thing to do, but not always that easy in older houses. So we still need a good heating system.

2. In the natural rotting proces of wood (like other kinds of biomass) there is not only emission of CO2, but also of some methane, which is even more harmfull to climate. So burning the wood can to this extend be considered a better choice than using fossile fuels.

3. There is a wide veriaty in efficiency of woodstoves. The most efficient ones only spread very mild amounts of unhealthy gasses. They do this mainly by burning the wood at higher temperatures, which makes them also suitable for burning wood from pine trees. I’m about to buy an efficient wood stove one of these weeks.

4. The burning of natural gas – which is suggested by Rob as a better alternative – means adding extra CO2 to the atmosphere. The extra amount of CO2 when not burned would have remained locked up deep way down for ever.

5. As long as we only use wood from responsibly forested woods, I think this wood is to be considered a sustainable heat source. The energy transition is to come from different energysources. Not one energy source will meet the demand.

6. Heat produced by a wood stove is a very different kind of heat then the heat produced by a central heating system. With a wood stove you feel more comfortable at lower room temperatures.

Phil Slade
23 Sep 4:01pm

The ZEDbook: solutions for a shrinking world, has a section which warns that eventually nobody with a standard type of house in UK will be able to afford to heat their home, making them uninhabitable.
The configuration of our buildings has to change to present less energy leaking surface area per occupant. We may have to roof our streets.
ZEDbook via Amazon http://tinyurl.com/39apbhj

Rural energy user
23 Sep 4:17pm

Why not make landlords legally responsible for heating bills so long as a dwelling is “efficiently-managed” to exclude extreme cases of abuse, e g tenants leaving windows open in winter? It could help to end the conflict of interest. Landlords must then do the same sensible things that owner-occupiers would want to do (if of course they had the capital).

It’s more common for the rent to include heating in USA and elsewhere in Europe. It sometimes happens in the UK too; e.g. Dolphin Square, London (1930s?) has a central heating system for all the blocks and the rent must include heat and DHW (many MPs have their second home here).

It’s illegal for social landlords to provide heated accommodation though. The UK government views it as a devious way to get the state to pay for tenants’ heating bills (via housing benefit). Seems silly to me as it leads to lots of rural RSL tenants being given electric storage heaters which are just as bad for CO2 as wood seems to be – but they are cheap for the landlord.

David
23 Sep 4:30pm

I really think we need to take a long hard look at some of the buildings we are trying to heat and seriously ask ourselves if we can ever make them fit for purpose. If not pull them down and build something that is.
Proper design and mindset that does everything possible to avoid using any form of energy for heating or cooling.
Earth sheltered, solar gain, thermal mass are all ways to gather the sun’s energy, storing it and releasing it when needed.
Solar thermal panels, a huge water tank and underfloor heating. Store energy while the sun shines and release it when it gets cooler.
Moving to a smaller home. Only using one room in the winter. Bed socks and night caps.

But how do you cook?

JTGreen
23 Sep 4:34pm

A heated debate on this subject has been going on at the Green Building Forum.

http://www.greenbuildingforum.co.uk/forum114/comments.php?DiscussionID=6241

http://www.greenbuildingforum.co.uk/forum114/comments.php?DiscussionID=6304

http://www.greenbuildingforum.co.uk/forum114/comments.php?DiscussionID=6302

I’m undecided on this question, but my journey to consideration of a woodburning stove (+/- back boiler, +/- accumulator tank, +/- solar thermal panels) has as much to do with my attitude to my chimneys as anything else. When considering internal insulating they are a damned nuisance, and the argument for just getting rid of them is strong. But they are also part of the history (and possibly structure) of the house, so there is a strong instinct to keep them. If I keep them, I want them to be functional and not merely decorative. None of the above is about CO2. If I make the chimney functional again, then I have the responsibility of sourcing my wood sustainably (e.g. as a byproduct of local urban/suburban aboriculture) and not ‘kiln dried’ and transported some distance, and of putting in an efficient stove that is suitable for smokeless zones.

IF I put in a wood stove, which remains a big if….but I have to decide what to do about those chimneys. I can’t see myself keeping those empty voids in the absence of a stove.

Skintnick
23 Sep 5:38pm

Having just put together a brief “Tip of the Month” for Waveney Green Party on the topic of woodburning stoves this post is eerily topical.

Almost exactly a year ago my wife & I made the greatest financial investment in our 16 years of marriage (excepting our home) decomissioning the gas boiler and installing a woodburner with back boiler to get hot water & feed radiators. The point being that a sensible total solution to home heating with wood is probably beyond the pocket of most people these days, so the question of scalability maybe less critical than your report implies. (My teenage daughters now can’t wait for winter so they can settle in the lounge in their jim-jams with the stove!)

Taking yourself as a case study Rob, I’d suggest that unless you have plenty of space in your garden (with suitable access) for a woodstore and work area for sawing/splitting/stacking etc. and the time and energy to collect and process all the wood you’ll need, then you’re at the mercy of the market so far as fuel is concerned – and as you say, it ain’t cheap to buy the tons and tons and tons required to get through winter. This rational approach should preclude another sizeable proportion of the potential market from taking the plunge into firewood heating.

Like so many things, it basically comes down to time, resources and money!

Thom Illingworth
23 Sep 6:23pm

When landlords pay for electric, heat, and other utilities, the tenants have no financial incentive to conserve. Conscientious tenants, therefore, end up paying (in their raised monthly rental rates) for the excess of energy that other tenants waste.

ForestFarmer
23 Sep 6:25pm

I come from western Oregon in the U.S. I own property that is blessed with a lot of timber on it. However, that does not mean to me that I can indiscriminately burn as much as I want. Why burn it at all if I can avoid the need altogether. Amory”s nega-watts are the way to go. I am of a mind that we can be smart enough to design out the need if we try. I am in the process of replacing an old inefficient mobile home with a passive solar straw bale home. I realize that not everyone has that possibility available to them, but the combination of creative thinking a thorough examination of facts can really help.

Windows are a case in point, and not just in terms of air leaks. Standard window sets are actually quite dismal at adequately lighting a house during daylight. How many of us turn the lights on in a room during the day? There is something wrong with this picture. Give some thought about how you might change or add things that would let the sun shine through for you. Reflectors? Sun tubes? Skylights?

Windows are also dismal at keeping you warm or cool when you want it. A single pane window is little better than a sheet of cardboard. Even double pane windows only have an R value of about 3. Basically you are just keeping the wind out. There are some improvements being made such as SeriousWindows.com which have R values as high as 11, but they are still expensive and not broadly available yet. But can you think of simple solutions? Insulating drapes to keep the night frost out? Shutters or awnings to keep the summer sun off your windows? It’s time for us to start being creative!

David Bacon
23 Sep 9:34pm

If we all install wood burning stoves we end up in the age of no trees and fairly quickly.

hugh owens
23 Sep 11:37pm

Interesting post. WE heat our house and our guest house here in wyoming with wood .Winter lows are -30-40. we have cut way down on our wood burning by insulating to county standards:R60 roofs. Our next plan is R40-45 walls and R20-30 floors. The only feasible way to get this level of insulation is with spray closed cell urethane which is a fabulous method. WE use staggered 2X4 walls which minimize heat loss bridging through the studs,insulated concrete slabs laid over concrete block, only a few super insulated windows.We have a sunspace feeding us enough heat in the shoulder seasons to heat our large house but once the snow season starts, it’s all wood heat, and hopefully much less.We plan to move into our super insulated guest house of about 1000 ft sq and we hope to use not over 20 million btu a season. we’ll see., .,

Brad K.
24 Sep 1:35am

Rural energy user,

I agree wit Thom Illingworth. Having landlord pay for utilities does two things. First, it removes direct cause and effect. Lowering energy usage by any given tenant brings no immediate result. The monetary incentive may not be all-encompassing, but the romantics among us believe that taxing cigarettes, cars, and CO2 emissions will people use less. Unless each person that sincerely believes that is a hopelessly deluded imbecile, it must work sometimes. Seeing your bills change when you change your energy usage pattern, I think, rewards good behavior. Thus the tenant or energy user learns conservation, once the money involved becomes sufficiently significant.

The other aspect of having the landlord pay is to remove responsibility for the bill and for energy usage or conservation patterns. The landlord pays; thus the landlord is responsible for the energy usage, either conservation or waste. No one else is responsible. Which isn’t a successful strategy for changing patterns of energy usage.

Rob,

Have you looked into a wood-burning, soapstone stove? Aggregate a ton or so of soapstone around the firepit, and actually light a fire once a day. The soapstone captures the heat and holds onto it, providing a gentle heat for 24 hours.

And, last night I wondered – what is the energy equation, of rigging an exercise-bicycle type human driving device to a pump, and pump geothermal water to a central unit or to in-room radiators of some sort, to heat and cool the space? Ideally you would want 20-30 minutes of pumping to heat and or cool for 12 hours or more.

When considering energy and comfort, does anyone consider insulating outer surface, but embedding thermal sumps (thermal masses) between rooms, so that once a temperature is achieved it is more difficult to change it? Perhaps changing from electric ceiling fans to mechanically driven? Perhaps pump a tank full of water in the attic, that drains to a tank in the basement while powering a small hydraulic motor or generator. Maybe even hook the thing up to a stationary bike thingy.

jaggedben
24 Sep 1:55am

Thanks for this post Rob. I hope it jogs some folks assumptions.

Thom Illingsworth’s comments on “renewable” vs. “sustainable” are well taken. We already know that human beings have historically devastated biomass stores on this planet(read: forests), even while also using lots of fossil fuels. Moreover, we know that deforestation continues to be the biggest problem in places where fossil fuel use isn’t actually the highest per capita (Africa, Brazil, Haiti). There are also already concerns about deforestation in Siberia, and that is just because of demand for wood for consumer products made in China, NOT for fuel. Telling billions of high-energy users in richer countries to start burning more wood is, in my opinion, a recipe for stripping the planet bare of its remaining forests. I’m not sure that the math on CO2 emissions even matters!!

We only have two options. 1) use less, and 2) get what we do use from sources that can be truly disassociated from the carbon cycle, such as solar (thermal and electric), wind, and (if we can accept its other problems for as long as it lasts) nuclear. We can insert a fair amount of such technology into the world without killing Gaia.

Frankly, my biggest fear for the future of humanity is that economic and civilizational collapse will eliminate the technological knowledge necessary to maintain completely carbon-FREE sources of energy, and that billions of helpless, desperate people will see no other options but to burn the biosphere until it is gone.

greg
24 Sep 9:50am

As there does not appear to be a single solution to heating homes, then burning wood is going to remain one way of doing the job.
What has not been mentioned is coppicing. I practice it myself. A far better method of carbon sequestration than re-planting as the growth rate of coppiced woodland is quite phenomenal.

Stephen Watson
24 Sep 10:03am

Me: “The questions is, what do the millions of us in rented accommodation do?”

Tim: “Sadly the political view on this seems to be that as we live in a market, you choose to rent a poorly insulated house so that is your fault – if everyone only chose to rent well insulated properties then landlords would soon get the message. (yeah right!)”

This does feel like the current attitude, the thing is that if the government is actually serious about reducing the UK’s CO2 emissions then it can’t sit back and let this situation continue. Time will tell if they’re really going to “lead the world” as we are always being told that we will …

I give tours of the Brighton Earthship and it has a pellet boiler (which I’ve never seen used) and that’s it. The nest module stays between 11 and 18C and the conservatory between 9 and 22C. Sunlight, thermal mass and insulation do the trick. The problem is that this is not a practical dwelling for 99% of UK residents, but does show what is achievable through design alone. Negawatts galore!

David: “I really think we need to take a long hard look at some of the buildings we are trying to heat and seriously ask ourselves if we can ever make them fit for purpose. If not pull them down and build something that is.”

The problem is that at current demolition rates it will take 996 years to demolish all those buildings. I don’t think we have that long … In my view, a huge part of any solution must be a massive, free, government insulation programme. I really don’t think anything else is practical.

If you are high up, look at a modern skyline – no chimneys. No place for woodburning stoves there even if you liked the idea.

I believe electric heating will become the most effiecint form of heating for the future. There are so many resources that lend themselves to electricity that one day between the sun/wind/Nuclear(as bad as it can be, there are more nuclear power plants in creation today than ever before)/eco-friendly methods electric heating will be the best method.

Here are a few pages from Warmup that may be of interest.

http://www.warmup.co.uk/uk-running-costs.phtml
http://www.warmup.co.uk/uk-research-development.phtml

edvaard wu
24 Sep 10:52am

If we go to biomass, I am afraid the surface of the planet would end up like Easter Island.

Peter Hunt
24 Sep 2:33pm

This is some the silliest and shallow thinking of environmental analysis I have run into.

Get dfown the track. First Conservation is an obvious cheap route but any damn fool knows that. Better insulation and energy efficiency in all forms from LED to refrigerators with interior/exterior waste heat rejection.

But as to wood for heating the alternative is to let it rot anaerobically and produce methane out of the butts of microorganisms. This is much worse than CO2. Sequester OK but at what cost and what volume? The worst seems to be let it fall in the forest and let it rot.

What does this so called analyst say about methane and it’s impact?

backwoodsman
24 Sep 3:04pm

Interesting debate, though there is a lot of navel-gazing going on here, and that somehow made me think of the Royal Navy and how shipbuilding caused significant deforestation in Britain in the 17th-19th centuries. If the government decided to build the Trident replacements and new aircraft carriers out of oak, where would that leave us?

Joking aside, ‘negawatts’ – better insulation and conservation – is the only way to go – though many of the measures needed would be bad news for historic (ie badly built and poorly insulated) houses. What is a conscientious middle-class person to do? Tear out their big old sash windows and replace them with smaller energy efficient ones? Would English Heritage or a local planning authority allow the retrofitting of spray-foam insulation in most old houses? Largely theoretical questions as few people will do it anyway unless the government subsidises most of the cost, and they won’t! Labour could have done it in 2008-9 as a huge economic stimulus scheme but missed the chance.

As far as woodburning goes, England has far too many people and too little woodland, so it will surely remain the preserve of a lucky few. Arguably the entire planet now has too many people and too little space – the unpalatable bottom-line to any sustainability debate.

I live in a place where there are a lot more trees than people and have a high-efficiency modern wood stove but still do not cut down healthy living trees. Using windfall and dead or dying trees seems fairly sensible but clearly not everyone can do it.

In most parts of the world I suspect that burning wood will continue to be an option only for the very poorest (S Asis) or wealthiest (UK) people.

Thom Illingworth
24 Sep 3:14pm

Responding to Peter Hunt’s comment: There are other options for wood than “burn it or let it rot.” Wood has fantastic properties that are hard to duplicate in synthetic materials. If we use wood in a sustainable manner for structural purposes, I don’t believe we’ll be releasing sequestered CO2 or methane to the levels of wood-burning. Proposing wood-burning as a large-scale solution is just thinking like the Oil Age energy users. For oil: “Here’s a resource that took millions of years to develop; let’s burn it all up in 300 years.” For wood: “Here’s a resource that took several decades to develop; let’s burn it all up in a couple years.” We can use wood-burning to some extent, trying to garner wood from sustainably managed forests. But as soon as wood-burning becomes more than a niche solution, the forest managers won’t be able to keep up with demand. Edvaard Wu’s comment is appropriate in this case to remind us of the fate of the Easter Islanders. What must that lost community have been thinking as they watched themselves burn up the last tree on their island? Were they so desperate? Are we today that desperate that we cannot develop wiser solutions?

Skintnick
24 Sep 3:44pm

Not to mention all those luvvly organisms that rely on rotting woodfall and undoubtedly play a crucial role in ecosystems…

Brad K.
24 Sep 7:26pm

Stephen Watson,

I think thermal mass as an indoor comfort mechanism has been grossly overlooked, in favor of the (commercially marketed) insulation approach.

Thom Illingworth,

What if wood burners were encouraged into entering long-term CSA agreements – that is, take a contract for someone to produce your firewood from a sustainably grown woodland.

And possibly investigate charcoaling other greenstuffs, from corn stocks (also useful as livestock fodder and bedding, as well as soil enrichment) to waste grasses along highways, rail rights of way, and untended odd corners and abandoned lots, perhaps in the form of charcoal to reduce volatiles and objectionable components near residences. I am sure the fumes, at community levels of production, might yield some opportunity for refining other beneficial products.

@ Underfloor Heating Specialist,

Aside from communal steam, I imagine electricity will remain as one form of residential energy.

BTW – what happened to the research and experimentation with wave motors and tide engines (or vice versa)? Short of disrupting the length of Earth’s year, or pulling the moon into collision with the Earth, the ocean should be a near-inexhaustible source of energy. Or converting oceanside fjords and bays into massive mill ponds to drive community generators and provide mechanical power for mills, and other needed industrial and craft processes?

Robert Palgrave
24 Sep 8:01pm

Even the Woodland Trust has been seduced by the idea of growing wood as a fuel. In this article they clearly acknowledge that the wood they are advocating as fuel takes up to ten years to grow for harvest. Burning it in year 11 is therefore putting ten years’ worth of sequestered carbon back into the atmosphere in quick time.

The opposite of what we need: Keep the oil in the soil, the coal in the hole AND the trees in the forest. That way we can keep the carbon out of the air.

from http://kn.theiet.org/news/sep10/firewood-growth.cfm

Clare Ollerenshaw, Morewoods programme manager, [The Woodland Trust] said: “We need more woodland and we need more firewood. People can now design their new wood to suit individual needs. Imagine having a regular supply of high quality, easy-to-fell firewood that’s close to the house, doesn’t need splitting, throws out heat and could be worth £100 a tonne.”

“Trees should be ready for initial cropping within seven to ten years, resulting in small logs that do not need cropping, and then can be harvested again within another ten to 15 years. She also said people did not have to make a choice between growing woods for fuel or to create habitat for wildlife.”

frisbee
25 Sep 2:28pm

Great debate! When considering the energy transition model, we need to not only use one source of energy alone. Multiple sources are to be used in the transition phase. During this period we might develope some techniques to a high efficiency, low cost level in which they can become our major sources of (clean) energy.
During this transition phase also wood can play its role as a fuel source, but of course not as the major source for heating our houses. Indeed there isn’t even sufficient wood available for such purpose. And long before dramatic deforestation would have taken place (in the western world), wood prices would have risen dramatically, forcing people to swiftly switch to cheaper sources of energy or – of course much cleverer – to better insulation of their houses.

Brad K.
25 Sep 4:00pm

frisbee,

One problem, of course, is the heavy reliance on “multiple” energy sources – without establishing which are available and which don’t cause more problems than coal or oil.

The other problem is that it is assumed that we will go forward without cultural change, still pursuing the single adult or family residence, whether apartment, condo, row/town house, or separate structure. This makes for marvelous individual freedom and space – but lousy energy conservation.

At the same time, we *must* make strides to re-use and recyle existing structures as they are taken down. Bricks and wooden wall components here are routinely crushed and buried in landfills or on site – requiring the harvest of more trees, the manufacture of bricks and other building components. If buildings from skyscrapers to houses were methodically dismantled, materials for further construction would have an immensely smaller carbon footprint, and much less impact on natural resources.

The problem, of course, is this nasty thing that is ending, the era of cheap energy. Since human labor became relatively extravagant, the financial cost of dismantling buildings to maximize reuse is horrendous, compared to making and transporting new materials. That part, the relative cost of human labor, will have to be addressed as we deal with the enter the post-industrial period.

Francis Macnaughton
25 Sep 6:55pm

The fact that woodfuel can’t solve all our energy problems is well known but that doesn’t mean that it should therefore be out of bounds. As other commentators have already said, there are plenty of situations where it makes sense, particularly for remote rural sites where the fuel is readily to hand at a sustainable scale and wood would displace a more carbon intensive and valuable fuel such as oil. If a house is already on mains gas supply I would not advocate changing to wood – I feel that by continually making the comparison between gas and wood the paper is rather misleading as this is probably the least common installation and certainly the least cost effective. I also disagree with the paper in setting the system boundary around the building – leaving out the bigger global picture takes no account of the fundamental issue whether the fuel is ancient fossil carbon or part of the carbon which is continually recycled in a much shorter timescale. I also disagree with the paper’s concern over a carbon rather than an energy metric for buildings – an energy metric would surely not take into account the different emission factors for different technologies or activities?

The suggestion that wood should be used instead for construction and furniture is fine as far as it goes. However, construction grade timber requires expensive investment in the necessary equipment – especially to grade and proof test it. As I understand it, most local sawmills in Devon are unable to make this investment and produce for lower grade requirements such as fencing instead. In any event managing and harvesting the woodland and processing the final product generates considerable arisings that can usefuly be used for fuel.

Of course every effort should be made to reduce the need for heating energy in the first place but the fact is that much of the existing housing stock is unlikely to be converted to Passivhaus levels of efficiency any time soon – regulations in National Parks, conservation zones and for listed buildings affect a fairly substantial proportion of houses in my part of Devon near Dartmoor. In the same area there are considerable sections of woodland that are not under active management which could produce a useful output of fuel and improve the overall biodiversity with the right techniques. There is also scope for further tree planting (UK tree cover is much lower than many other European countries) and changing the current practices on hedgerow management to increase the total long term sustainable resource. If all this does not mean that there is insufficient to heat every home that does not mean that it is not worth doing only that it should be used in the most appropriate situations.

In summary, woodfuel is an opportunity to reduce local emissions and increase energy resilience but it is no different from any other technology in that it has good and bad points that need to be understood so that it is applied in the right circumstances.

Stephen Watson
25 Sep 7:11pm

Francis said “… but the fact is that much of the existing housing stock is unlikely to be converted to Passivhaus levels of efficiency any time soon – regulations in National Parks, conservation zones and for listed buildings affect a fairly substantial proportion of houses in my part of Devon near Dartmoor.”

The thing is, this “Listed status / Conservation area” housing situation is a complete luxury that cannot continue IF the government is actually serious about reducing CO2 emissions, tackling climate change and becoming anything like sustainable in energy use, or whether they are just empty words whilst we tinker around the edges.

Also, the planning laws will require changing too if we are going to get serious about this. BAU is not a long-term option …

John Mason
25 Sep 7:24pm

I don’t think anyone’s really answered my question in the first response to Rob yet. What defines “warm” and “cold”? 2 or 3 padded shirts or shorts & T-shirt indoors all year round?

Perhaps it should have been pitched differently?

Cheers – John

Brad K.
25 Sep 9:54pm

John Mason,

I cannot give but anecdotal conjecture. The Places Rated Almanac some years ago listed San Francisco the city with the mildest climate – the least temperature difference from 65 degrees F, outside temp, average for the year.

I kept my a/c set to 88 degrees F this current heating season, with little to complain about. I do revel in the cooler nights in spring and again in fall for more moderate temperatures. I set my heating to 52 or 54 degrees last winter, I forget which. That let me get a reasonably comfortable night’s sleep with three blankets and a sheet over the top, or a blanket plus electric blanket (set on 2 or less, with a dial that goes to 10). I live alone, so have no one to make comments of any kind about how I set the thermostat.

If I recall correctly Sharon Astyk claimed to heat one or two rooms in her house, and did her book and blog writing in an unheated office room, with temps regularly in the 40s (F).

When you consider the homeless surviving with unheated or makeshift shelter in freezing weather, the question of why the rest of us don’t sleep with newspaper insulation wadded under our clothes might be apropos. While living in Arizona, my a/c went out the 30th day of July, and I weathered four days without cooling, with high daily temps ranging from 117 F to 119 F. People in hot climate frequently survive (well) in un-cooled dwellings, in hotter temps than that.

Unless your question is about “given so-called modern adaptations to cheap energy, with clothing styles, work habits, and hygiene fashions assuming aggressive air conditioning, what is the maximum acceptable indoor temperature?” My guess would be around 75-78 degrees F. If your question is “given so-called modern expectations that a room feel warm as if the resident were affluent enough to heat to any desirable temperature”, then that might be 66 degrees to 68 degrees F. YMMV

As for clothing – remember that there are those into nude social recreation, and maybe a tshirt or less, or just briefs, would be an acceptable garment limit at the warm temps – but you have to decide whether you expect to noticeably sweat. And that varies by activity, acclimation, and diet as much as room temperature. Today marketing and some clothing choices make sweating unacceptable to some people. Plus, sweating and shivering with cold may well be construed as lacking resources – and offend some people’s self image.

Let us know if you find a simple answer to your question.

Brad K.
Oklahoma, USA

Doug Clayton
26 Sep 4:16am

I am surprised that in all this “burning” discussion no one has mentioned the potentials of biochar systems that may be available in the near future. Rather than burning wood or other biomasses, if we pyrolize them, energy can be extracted, heat and electricity generated (pyrolysis is an exothermic process), oils, volatile gasses and such captured. In the end you are left with charcoal, which, when deliberately produced with the intention of incorporating it into the soil is termed “biochar”. A permanent carbon sequestration. Biochar producing systems are scalable everywhere from small cooking appliances to megawatt power plants. And they can be engineered to run as clean as or cleaner than the most efficient combustion systems.

I’ve been an enthusiastic student of biochar for almost 4 years now, ever since reading the book 1491 New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles Mann where I learned of the anthropomorphic “Terra preta” (black soils) of the Amazon basin that some have speculated to have once supported a population of 20 million people. Anthropologist, archeologists, soil scientists, engineers of many stripes, academics at dozens of universities around the world are now figuring out the best ways to engage with this multifunctional concept. The idea has been endorsed by the likes of James Hansen (the NASA climate scientist), Bill McKibben (350.org), and James Lovelock (father of the Gaia hypothesis, who now says that this strategy, the permanent sequestration of carbon as charcoal, is “our last chance to save mankind”).

The benefits of incorporating biochar into soils include nutrient and moisture holding improvements, yield increases in depleted soils, agricultural runoff and toxics remediation . . . . on and on, but probably most importantly the enhancement of soil life. Biochar creates what has been termed a “microbial reef” in the soil. And it is stable, doesn’t degrade, is permanently sequestered. Hopefully the value of this will soon be recognized as far more important than extracting every last BTU through burning. Carbon trading schemes are coming into play. You want to speculate how much carbon is sequestered by this strategy or that? Well, here’s one where you can actually weigh it!

Check here:
http://www.biochar-international.org/

http://terrapreta.bioenergylists.org/

http://worldstove.com/

Google biochar, there are dozens more.

Forget the chickens; your permaculture design will not be complete until you have incorporated a biochar system. Or better yet feed biochar to the chickens as it is good for them and a good way to inoculate your biochar.
elaborated on

Stephen Watson
26 Sep 11:52am

I think John, that you will find that “Warm” and “Cold” are relative. If you spend your life in the Arctic, then 10C may seem hot, or cold if you normally live in Africa. I’m sure you know that though.

My friends often look at me and ask (looking at me in my kilt in November) “Aren’t you cold in that?” and I answer “If my top’s warm then the rest is fine.”. And as Billy Connolley said “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes”.

Having said all that, it is clearly crazy to wear a wooly hat, scarf, vest, t-short, shirt and pullover in the middle of July and just as idiotic to expect that it’s reasonable to wear a only light vest and shorts indoors in January. However, if you have free heating (as I used to in a flat I once rented) then you may be tempted to do just that. Some of the blasts of heats that came out of some flats where I’ve delivered leaflets over the years would confirm that!

There’s is no ultimate answer to such a subjective question, but I do think that the use of cheap fossil fuels has destroyed people’s common sense across the board and that applies to domestic heating expectations as well.

Tim
26 Sep 2:12pm

What defines “warm” and “cold”?

I have spent a lot of the last few months looking into this – as far as I can tell it is I think , ultimately, the individual in question who defines this – however their perception is formed from a huge range of things including personal and cultural expectations, including:
- time of year,
- time of day,
- location (place on the planet and inside or outside), non-temperature parameters such as humidity, ability to control temperature,
- length of time they have been exposed to the current temperature (going inside from the cold may initially feel warm but then might begin to feel cold),
- level of physical activity,
- amount and type of clothing
- quality of lighting (e.g. “warm” incandescent bulbs, or harsh “cold” fluorescent lighting
- There may also be physical factors such as conditioning or even genetics that make an impact.

What is clear is that standards like those from ASHRAE (Advancing heating, ventilating, air conditioning and refrigerating to serve humanity and promote a sustainable world.) http://www.ashrae.org/
which seek to promote a universal definition are extremely questionable.

One possible definition would be: “warm is nice, cold is not”

Ingrid Pasteur
27 Sep 4:27pm

Burn your rubbish in your woodburning stove. I used to burn a big cardboard box to warm up the room for a meeting. Is that worse than recycling, considering that the stuff has to be taken away and then processed. It’s like so many of these issues: difficult to know what is best.

Jeremy
27 Sep 5:50pm

Hmm, good points. I’ve been thinking about installing a wood-burner this winter as well, and that gives me pause to stop and think about it.

I’m also looking into more insulation and efficiency measures, including radiator fans in a couple of rooms, insulating the underside of the wooden floorboards, and more loft insulation.

If you can get hold of a thermal imaging camera, I can recommend wandering around the house with that too. I was able to borrow one from the council.

[...] but not to organise DW to contact requester with info about local log supplier Later note: read Rob Hopkins’ blog post on this topic EM can publish blog post if requester says he’ll [...]

Robert
28 Sep 8:55am

@Doug Clayton

Yes! Holy grail = a biochar (woodgas) stove that works for cooking and space heating.

But where can I find one?

Caroline Walker
28 Sep 12:20pm

Fascinating series of posts on this topic. ‘Can Britain Heat Itself?’ parallels Simon Fairlie’s question, ‘Can Britain Feed Itself?’ Both ought to be at the top of politician’s agenda. No-one has so far mentioned ceramic stoves, unless the post about soapstone stoves referred to them. They are supposed to be very efficient and use little wood, and are easy to repair, unlike hi-tech biomass boilers (see the post last winter about Matt Dunwell’s predicament). Any comments on ceramic stoves?

Brad K.
28 Sep 2:13pm

@ Ingrid Pasteur,
burning trash and rubbish shares one of the hazards of burning coal – toxic inclusions. Whether you are burning trash to get rid of it, or for heat (or produce biochar or charcoal!), you should be aware of the presence of man-made toxins beyond what is present in well-cured wood gathered and prepared for home heating or cooking.

@ Robert,

I imagine the ideal would be a form of fractional distillation of the fumes from biochar or charcoal making. You likely want to remove the water vapor, and there may be components that are more valuable than serving as contaminants in cooking fuel gas.

Is this the point we ask about turning wood or components into methanol, wood alcohol? And using methanol/ethanol for heating or cooking?

Leo Frankowski, in his SF novel “Cross Time Engineer”, observes that the elegant solution – in his story, the crochet hook – is the most difficult to accomplish.

Heating/cooking conservation measures from history include clan homes and communal housing in cold climes and tents in hot, while we struggle with how to heat and cook, in existing homes built with conspicuous consumption – display of wealth, in the form of a single family dwelling – in mind. Are we too focused on half measures to extrapolate what “works” for an individual to a national or even communal solution?

Tim
28 Sep 3:20pm

Re: Burning Trash

It is not just “man-made toxins” in what you are burning – it is ones that are produced in the burning itself – particularly dioxins and furans.

You need to be incredibly careful what you burn – certainly no plastic. Bleached papers and inks may also contain a range of nasty things.

Jennifer Lauruol
30 Sep 12:08am

All of the above: voluntary simplicity + frugality (lower expectations) + CSA-type coppice ventures of linear woodlands as part of farm hedgerow maintenance; cook using a kelly kettle; live in one heated room; take lots of exercise; sit with a hot water bottle in a sleeping bag when doing sedentary work; in higher latitudes, live seasonally (sleep more in winter, do more activity in summer; in hot regions, use the siesta and live in the early morning and evening, etc. Which ever way we go, our lifestyles have to simplify, our expectations become more reasonable.

Andy Hunt
30 Sep 1:54pm

Thanks for your piece Rob, very interesting and yes I found the original article very thought-provoking too.

There are a number of assumptions at work here though which have a bearing on things.

First of all, we may well ask the question, “is burning logs as fuel the best use for it?” and the answer might come back “no”. But we really need to look at what practicable alternatives there are.

Most local authorities have a large amount of waste wood from normal tree maintenance operations. This wood is of a very low quality, certainly far too low a quality for building or furniture use. Much of it goes into landfill and decays, releasing methane – and I don’t need to tell you about the potency of methane as a greenhouse gas. The methane from some landfill sites is captured, it’s true, but still ends up as CO2 from burning to generated electricity (and heat which is largely wasted).

So we see here that the arguments about using wood to sequester carbon in fact do not apply in practice. The only other potential for sequestering carbon through wood would be to pyrolise all this waste wood, to make a biofuel and turn the wood into charcoal, which could then be buried on agricultural land and used as ‘biochar’ to sequester carbon and improve the soil. If this actually happened, then yes it could easily be argued that this would be a better use for it. But it doesn’t.

I have done some work providing highly efficient wood stoves to fuel poor homes, where the occupants might be vulnerable, sick, disabled, or elderly. The results of these projects were highly favourable, with a reduction in both energy bills and carbon emissions from the combustion of gas from central heating systems. The wood was invariable waste wood, generated and supplied locally, even in an urban area, which would otherwise have gone to landfill.

There is a big difference between this waste low-quality wood which naturally arises and can be used locally in fuel poor homes as a sustainable fuel source with a carbon-neutral cycle, and massive biomass power stations burning whole forests every year which are shipped in from abroad.

In this sense, I agree with the article that a large-scale dash for biomass fuel is neither sustainable nor environmentally benign. But I do think that there is a role for low quality waste logs as a local carbon neutral fuel, burned in efficient, Clean Air Act compliant wood stoves, to tackle fuel poverty and net carbon emissions simultaneously.

Jon Rome
3 Oct 1:38pm

I do wish people would stop taliking about carbon emissions. Its carbon dioxide thats the concern, not soot or diamonds. Get your science right before you let forth.

Tim
4 Oct 9:16am

“Its carbon dioxide thats the concern, not soot or diamonds.”

I agree that when people mean carbon dioxide they should say carbon dioxide – but in this case we are actually concerned with ‘soot’ as well – or emissions of black carbon particles. This is both because of the health risk from them – but also due to their warming effect.

In terms of warming – black carbon creates a short-term, but very strong, warming effect http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/07/100729144225.htm

However, it is also having an effect in terms of increased melting of ice in the Himalayas due to settling on snow and ice and increasing the rate at which it melts http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/carbon-pole.html A great deal of this comes from wwood stoves in the Indian subcontinent.

So soot (i.e. black carbon) IS actually a concern – and people therefore need to be even more careful in talking about carbon dioxide when that is what they mean!

Jennifer
13 Oct 3:09pm

On using biomass other than wood, the argument I have heard is that that material would otherwise go toward building soil fertility. Making ethanol of it effectively rapes the soil. Here in Nova Scotia the argument around biomass plants (being hastily put in place to satisfy quotas for renewable electricity) is that burning wood for electricity is simply not that efficient.

It is very frustrating that in Canada our homes are largely built in the stupidest fashion possible with regards to passive solar heating and insulation. What is needed is to completely rebuild our neighbourhoods in order to orient them toward the sun. When that is done we can start to think of sourcing the small amount of wood to get us through those -35C nights.

Brad K.
13 Oct 5:45pm

Jennifer,

An ethanol plant must extract the sugars from the biomass. But what about the rest of it?

I know when they chop and hack up the sugar beet to cook out all the juices – what is left, the beet pulp shreds, makes a good livestock forage-type fodder. I add soybean, corn, or canola oil for my equines.

While the ethanol plant might buy corn – at least the stalks and cobs are left in the field, and either turned under to partially replenish the soil, or used for livestock grazing before being incorporated.

I wonder that no one is using green corn – silage – for making ethanol. Silage ferments anyway, I would think the added mass would make that more attractive. Ah, well. Just as feeding livestock transforms the feed into a condensed form, simpler to transport with more value per pound, using just the corn kernels is likely handier to build a plant around. Especially when the object is to burn tax dollars, and not to conserve energy or carbon. Or food.

[...] about the birth of the Transition Movement, reports that he had only been weeks away from installing a wood burning stove on his home in Totnes, in the South West of England when he read a study published by the [...]

flaneur
15 Oct 10:39am

This discussion seems to have virtually ignored the topic of emissions – here from the Canadian Lung association, are the facts about what’s in woodsmoke:
• PM10 (inhalable particulate matter less than 10 microns in diameter) – PM10, which consists of a mixture of microscopic particles of varied size and composition, has been declared a toxic substance under the Environmental Protection Act. These particles can be inhaled deep into the lungs, leading to serious respiratory problems, including excess mortality, especially among those with pre-existing cardiopulmonary illness.
• Carbon Monoxide (CO) – can reduce the blood’s ability to supply necessary oxygen to the body’s tissues, which can cause stress to the heart. When inhaled at higher levels, CO may cause fatigue, headaches, dizziness, nausea, confusion and disorientation and, at very high levels, lead to unconsciousness and death. Fire Prevention Canada advises that CO detectors be installed in every home that has a combustion appliance or an attached garage.
• Oxides of Nitrogen (NOx) – can lower the resistance to lung infections. In particular, nitrogen dioxide can cause shortness of breath and irritate the upper airways, especially in people with lung diseases such as emphysema and asthma.
• Hydrocarbons (HC) – can damage the lungs.
• Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) – can cause respiratory irritation and illness. Some VOCs emitted by wood-burning appliances, such as benzene, are known to be carcinogenic.
• Formaldehyde – can cause coughing, headaches and eye irritation and act as a trigger for people with asthma.
• Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) – Prolonged exposure to PAHs is believed to pose a cancer risk.
• Dioxins and furans- Some dioxins and furans are carcinogenic.
• Acrolein – can cause eye and respiratory tract irritation.

flaneur
15 Oct 10:43am

Forgot to include the website -http://www.lung.ca/protect-protegez/pollution-pollution/outdoor-exterior/heating-chauffage_e.php#wood

Cosy evening by a log fire anyone?

In a couple of years anyone who has installed one of these things is going to look like an anti-social idiot.

Jerry Barr
12 Jan 10:53am

So……I was wrong to throw out the oil fired boiler (no gas here) and replace with wood pellet?My wood pellet boiler is incredibly efficient in every sense, works in tandem with a solar panel and requires just one bulk delivery a year (it was two for oil)

Jerry

Tim
12 Jan 11:07am

Jerry – I would say not in the slightest.

Biomass combustion isn’t all bad – the official line is “The right Technology in the right place” and one of the big issues is what is the alternative, or what is it that you are replacing.

A new wood pellet boiler in a place that is off the gas grid, and replacing oil is probably fine (especially with the reduction in deliveries.
Tim.