Eighty percent of the #2 heating oil burned in the U.S. is burned in the Northeast.  We have adapted well to a fuel that was plentiful, easy to distribute, and easy to consume.  Much of the world, and a growing number in the Northeast,  have recognized that the patterns we’ve grown accustomed to are unsustainable. Roughly 85% of the energy we use in our homes in the Northeast is used for heat and domestic hot water.

Pellet-fired boilers and central heating has some distinct economic advantages for our region.  Retaining money spent on home heating energy in the region can only mean good things for employees in our region.  In truth, the economic possibilities for our region from a significant shift from fossil fuels to renewable, biomass heating are breathtaking.

Thoughtful people looking at conversion from fossil fuel heating to wood pellet heating quickly ask three  questions:  what about atmospheric carbon, what about combustion emissions, and could our forest sustain more home heating with wood and remain healthy?

Let’s look at those questions.

What about atmospheric carbon?

Nearly everyone is concerned with the increase in atmospheric carbon that has occurred in recent decades.  While some argue that the Earth’s populations will be in trouble if atmospheric carbon concentrations exceed 360 ppm, current carbon concentration is approximately 390 ppm.  The rapid, dramatic increases in atmospheric carbon concentration have arisen largely from human combustion of fossil fuels which releases carbon that has been “stored away” in fossil form for millenia.

The prevailing wisdom has held for some time that burning wood does not significantly increase greenhouse gas carbon dioxide because the carbon stored in the trees is part of the active carbon cycle.  That is, the carbon emitted from burning wood as carbon dioxide was removed from the atmosphere by the growing tree and will return to the atmosphere whether the tree is cut and burned or dies and decomposes. Green plants will again take up the carbon and the cycle will repeat.

Recognizing that fossil fuels are utilized in harvesting and transporting the wood and pellets has led to the widely accepted claim of  70-75% carbon neutrality for the combustion of wood pellets for heating. The US Environmental Protection Agency made the following statement in 2010:

“Although the burning of biomass also produces carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas, it is considered to be part of the natural cycle of the earth. The plants take up carbon dioxide from the air while they are growing and then return it to the air when they are burned, thereby causing no net increase.”

What about emissions?

There is no sulfur and little nitrogen in biomass. During combustion AutoPellet boilers produce no sulfur oxides,  less nitrogen oxides and less carbon monoxide than oil or gas boilers. They also produce very little particulate matter but a bit more than oil or gas boilers (oil boiler .007 lb/million BTUs, AutoPellet .019 lb/million BTUs).  This performance has the AutoPellet systems achieving the very demanding standards that the EPA is proposing for biomass boiler systems.

Could our forest sustain more home heating with wood and remain healthy?

Currently Maine alone has the mill capacity to produce over 300,000 tons of pellets per year.  Many of those pellets leave the state because there is not a sufficiently large local market for their consumption.  300,000 tons of pellets would heat more than 33,000 typical New England homes, so, if the pellets stayed in the State, 7.5% of Maine’s oil-burning homes could be heated now with today’s local pellet manufacturing capacity.

The Northeast is heavily forested and traditional consumers of harvested wood have been consuming less and less material for decades.  In 2009, following a substantial 2008 run-up in oil prices, Maine Governor John E. Baldacci commissioned a task force to study the issues surrounding greater use of wood for thermal energy in Maine.

The Wood to Energy Task Force considered a 10% conversion of residential heating in Maine to pellet heating over the decade.  In looking at longer term forest products implications, the Task Force drew on the “Maine Forest Service Assessment of Sustainable Biomass Availability: Absolute Supply is not the Issue” in concluding “…there can be enough wood in Maine in 20 to 30 years to eventually make a significant proportion of Maine’s homes and businesses independent of imported oil without a demand induced scarcity of forest-based raw material and thus without a demand induced price rise even if the pulpwood demand remains constant.”

The answers to the three conscientious questions are all well-considered and positive answers.

  • Atmospheric carbon emissions will be substantially reduced by those who switch from fossil fuel burning to pellet-fired central heating.
  • High quality pellet boilers have very favorable emissions profiles reducing sulfur and nitrogen oxides and meeting, or exceeding, very stringent EPA proposed rules for particulate emissions.
  • There is an ample pellet supply in Maine today to convert more than 30,000 Maine homes to clean, renewable, locally produced pellet fuel.

The author is the managing director of Maine Energy Systems, which imports and assembles OkoFEN pellet boiler systems.  He can be reached at [email protected]