CONCORD, NH: Results of a new life-cycle analysis show that heating with wood pellets instead of fossil fuels in the Northern Forest can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than half. Specifically, the analysis shows that using wood pellets immediately reduces greenhouse gas by 54 percent versus oil and 50 percent versus natural gas.
The life-cycle analysis further shows that after 50 years, heating with wood pellets produces 62 percent less greenhouse gas than oil, 67 percent less than natural gas and 56 percent less than propane.
“Now we can say unequivocally that heating with high-efficiency wood pellet boilers in the Northern Forest reduces greenhouse gas and helps us fight climate change,” said Rob Riley, president of the Northern Forest Center. “When we use local, renewable wood pellets to heat, we’re reducing greenhouse gases emissions and supporting our region’s forest economy.”
The results come from a study by SIG-NAL (the Spatial Informatics Group—Natural Assets Laboratory) commissioned by the Northern Forest Center.
“No one had previously done an assessment that is based on the actual conditions in the Northern Forest,” said Program Director Maura Adams. “Context really matters in climate impact studies, so we commissioned a study to assess the greenhouse gas impact of using wood pellets for heat in the Northern Forest based on real data for our region. Now we know the results: heating with wood pellets is far better than heating with oil or natural gas in the Northern Forest.”
The 30-million-acre Northern Forest in northern Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York is the largest forested area east of the Mississippi River.
SIG-NAL’s analysis used data specific to the Northern Forest region, including US Forest Service Inventory Analysis information about forest management and data from regional pellet mills. The study surveyed 10 mills serving the Northern Forest to find out the type and source of wood going into their pellets, the fuels used in manufacturing the pellets, and more. The information was averaged to create a greenhouse gas profile for the Northern Forest pellets (one mill did not respond to the survey).
"There have been a lot of generalizations made about the feedstock composition of biomass energy sources,” said study author John Gunn, Ph.D. of SIG-NAL. “In this work we were able to get information directly from wood pellet producers in the Northern Forest region and use it to frame realistic assumptions for our analyses."
The study showed that the mills serving the Northern Forest use, on average, 44 percent sawdust and mill residuals in their pellets, and 56 percent low-quality pulpwood and small trees. This means nearly half the wood fiber going into pellets is recovered waste from manufacturing some other wood product.
Through its Modern Wood Heating program, the Northern Forest Center has helped homeowners and businesses in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York install 130 wood pellet boilers.
“This study is encouraging in that it demonstrates that state-of-the-art wood pellet boilers can help us reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also helping homeowners stay warm,” said Jamey Fidel, forest and wildlife program director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council. “Vermont’s comprehensive energy plan encourages more efficient, modern wood heating, and this study validates why heating with renewable, locally sourced wood in place of fossil fuels can help us mitigate climate change.”
The study’s life-cycle analysis of heating fuels found that heating with oil produces 357 grams of greenhouse gas equivalents per kilowatt hour. That amount remains constant over time. In contrast, heating with wood pellets produces 165 grams per kilowatt hour initially and drops to 135 grams per kilowatt hour by year 50.
“The region has lost a lot of its traditional markets for low-grade wood,” said Adams. “Maine alone has lost 36 percent of its low-grade wood market in the last three years due to the closure of five paper mills. We can redirect that wood into pellet manufacturing and know that we’ll be reducing greenhouse gases.”
The Northern Forest Center builds economic and community vitality while fostering sound forest stewardship across the Northern Forest of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York.