People in the modern wood heat community – from boiler importers, installers, and pellet vendors to agency and NGO staff –care deeply about their work. Their motivations are greater than a paycheck: whether it’s reducing fossil fuel use, keeping heating dollars in the region, or helping communities cut and stabilize heating costs, some greater mission is keeping them in the wood heat world. Maybe it’s that sense of mission that keeps them in this business despite all the challenges.

Biomass Heating Expo 2016 001This community’s tenacity and sense of purpose were easily visible at this year’s Northeast Biomass Heating Expo, held in Burlington, Vermont, at the end of March. Many of us were worried it would feel grim, since oil prices, a mild winter, and some naysayers have been tough on the wood heat community lately. Even guests visiting from Upper Austria had low expectations. OkoFEN pellet boiler CEO Stefan Ortner told organizers that he “expected a very bad mood because of the low oil price.” Instead, he “found a lot of dedicated people full of motivation and trust in this industry.”

That sense of motivation and trust were also evident in participants’ willingness to engage in difficult conversations. The conference included many provocative topics: carbon emissions, air quality impact, pros and cons of thermal storage, and more. People openly disagreed with each other, but did so respectfully – and still enjoyed glasses of Von Trapp lager together later. As organizer Adam Sherman of the Biomass Energy Resource Center put it, “When we get together as an industry we can ask the hard questions and have honest and open dialogues about how we move forward.”

At the final session, speaker and uber advocate Charlie Niebling asked audience members to share one worry that keeps them up at night and one thing that gives them hope about this industry. Worries ranged widely, but there was plenty of positive commentary too. One comment particularly stuck with me. Christiane Egger, deputy manager of the O.Ö. Energiesparverband (the energy agency of Upper Austria, the epicenter of wood heat technology), told Charlie afterward: “That session represents what is best about America. Opening up and sharing honest views about ‘what keeps me up at night’ is something Austrians would never do!” It’s nice to know we’re distinct in that positive way. It can only help us in the long run.

Niebling shared a perspective with me that summarizes the Expo nicely: “I always come away from the Expo energized about the important contributions we make to the economy of northern New England and New York, and what we can do together to extend these benefits more broadly.”

My colleagues and I at the Northern Forest Center would love to hear about your experiences as part of the “modern wood heat community” and how you’re extending the benefits of wood heat across the region. Send me an email and we may share your thoughts on our Facebook page or in a future Wood Heat Advocate.

As soon as I read this thoughtful feature on Thos. Moser in the March 27 Portland Press Herald, I wanted to share it. I’m always happy to tell the story of our work with Thos. Moser to implement innovations that reduce manufacturing waste and improve the company’s bottom line. However, this article prompted me not to highlight our past work with them, but to let you in on our thinking about how we can encourage young entrepreneurs to see opportunity in the Northern Forest.

blog post VT Farm Table with RobThomas Moser, the founder of this 70-employee furniture manufacturing business, successfully handed off the business to his sons, David, Andy and Aaron. And while it’s wonderful to see a case where the next generation takes the reins of family-owned wood products businesses, that’s not always possible. The region’s current demographic trends point toward a graying workforce. Many wood products business owners are looking forward to retirement, and are thinking about their exit strategies. This presents a unique opportunity for talented young people to take the reigns!

The good news is that we’re seeing younger entrepreneurs enter the wood product manufacturing industry without a family connection. For example, a young couple leads Vermont Farm Table, a thriving business with a facility in Bristol Vermont. We are working with Vermont Farm Table to implement business innovations to ensure their continued success (they are hiring) and we’re encouraged by their tech savvy, innovation and quality craftsmanship. We’re also working with two companies that have successfully transitioned from founders to new ownership: Invironments, a finish cabinetry and millwork shop in Hermon, Maine, and Lyndon Furniture, a fine furniture company in Lyndon, Vermont.  We’re excited to see these successful companies stay  and provide manufacturing jobs in the Northern Forest.

You may have missed the news story over the holidays, but California is currently experiencing the country’s worst environmental disaster since the BP oil spill. Over 150 million pounds of methane have leaked from a natural gas storage facility in California since October, and the problem can’t be fixed for months. This leak especially bad for climate change because methane traps 25 times as much heat in the atmosphere as  as carbon dioxide does. The human impact is more immediate: 2,000 people have been evacuated from their homes because of health dangers and local schools have hazmat suit necessary to touch wood fuel

Natural gas advocates often describe it as a cleaner fuel than oil since it emits less carbon dioxide at the time of combustion. But this disaster disputes the “clean” label. How can  we accept a fuel as “clean” when it has the ability to cause such significant harm? The California leak is from just one faulty safety valve. How many valves must there be across the natural gas pipeline system in the state, or in the US?

No fuel is benign, but some fuels – like wood – are a whole lot less risky than others. Look at the advantages of wood: Bulk wood pellets come from locally harvested wood and are shipped within the region. They aren’t extracted far away and then brought in by pipeline. They aren’t volatile or poisonous. There are far fewer opportunities for things to go wrong along the delivery chain from extraction to manufacturing to delivery to use.

From blogs to The New York Times, much is being said about the carbon impact of using wood for energy—without much distinction between using it for heat or electricity generation. Yet when it comes to carbon, they are worlds apart.

Fully accounting for the carbon impact of using wood as fuel is very complicated, and blanket statements that assume all energy from wood is equal are ignoring critical distinctions between wood as a heating fuel, and wood used to generate electricity.

The Northern Forest Center specifically champions modern wood heat because—in the context of the Northeast—generating heat from wood via highly efficient primary heating systems is a triple winner, producing reliable, local fuel at a stable price; saving money and creating jobs for rural communities; and reducing net atmospheric carbon dioxide over time. Ideally, wood heat is sourced and produced close to where it is used, at a scale that fits within the carrying capacity of the region’s forests.