By Maura Adams and Rob Riley

Climate change is scientifically complex and politically fraught, yet very clear. Long-term data combined with local observation tell us that natural cycles are changing, and with significant effect. 

Maine forest webAt the Northern Forest Center, we pay special attention to news and studies about the role forests and forest products play in mitigating climate change – and to media stories that mischaracterize the carbon impact of using wood in our context. And there are many.

For example, we would have expected a more nuanced piece from climate activist Bill McKibben when he attacked every form of biomass energy in a recent New Yorker article: “Don’t Burn Trees to Fight Climate Change – Let Them Grow” (8/15/19). Like others, he fails to recognize essential lifecycle distinctions that affect the equation for carbon impact of using wood for energy in places like New England. 

By condemning use of wood for energy under all circumstances, McKibben and others dismiss an important means of reducing carbon emissions: displacing fossil fuels by instead heating homes and buildings with advanced wood heating systems using regionally-produced wood pellets or chips from managed forests. In many cases these pellets are made of sawdust that is the by-product from dimensional lumber, furniture, flooring, and other wood products manufacturing. 

Froling TruckFrom January 2012 through the end of June 2018, the Northern Forest Center had provided incentives or other assistance to 163 wood pellet boiler projects, and we estimate that they’ve contributed a total of $3.5 million to the regional economy. Together the boiler owners have spent approximately $1.7 million on locally-made wood pellets and have cut greenhouse gas emissions by more than 4,000 tons.

We calculate the impact of our wood heat program so we can explain the need for supportive public policies, continued funding for conversions from oil to sustainable wood pellet heat, and more. But what’s behind the numbers? It’s time to dust off your algebra skills and find out!

Estimates are necessarily based on assumptions and choices, and we’ve put a lot of thought into deciding how best to calculate the benefits of switching to wood pellet heat. We use a combination of pellet consumption data, fuel prices and a conservative economic multiplier to account for the increased amount of money circulating in the local economy rather than being sent outside the region to pay for fuel from elsewhere. We balance precision with practicability and believe our methodology produces a well-reasoned estimate of the impact that switching to wood pellets for heat has on the region’s economy and environment.

This has been a frustrating week. Maybe for the thousandth time, I’m reminded that fuel bills for most New Englanders are completely subject to the decisions made by far-away investors and global leaders, most of whom are radically disconnected from the people whose lives their actions intimately affect. 

Whether it’s perceptions that “Saudi Arabia and Russia are having a strong and fruitful collaboration to keep the price of oil high and rising” from NPR or the president’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal causing oil prices to “swing wildly,” as CNN Money and others described the market on May 8, geopolitical events will keep people guessing about what will come next and how it will affect their ability to pay for heat and transportation. Chris Brooks wood chip pile crpd

It doesn’t have to be this way. Options for greater domestic energy independence are well within reach that can help insulate us from international events. And since the Northeast consumes the vast majority of the heating oil in the U.S., it’s especially important that we look for alternatives. Even so, the shift toward renewable heating – especially the high-efficiency, automated wood pellet boilers and furnaces the Northern Forest Center promotes—is slow. 

High oil prices make automated wood heat more economically attractive, so it's good news for the wood heating industry that oil prices exceeded $70/barrel on May 7 for the first time since 2014. And yet, it’s infuriating to think about the struggling families, towns, farmers, loggers and small businesses that will all be hit hard by these higher fossil fuel prices. 

Wood pellet heat is inherently local—it’s immediately tangible and accessible. Anyone  northern New England or New York can see where their wood pellets come from over the course of an afternoon—moving from the forests that produce the wood, to the mills that process the pellets, to the local companies that deliver them. We can talk to landowners about their forest stewardship goals, hear from loggers about changes to the forest economy that have made their livelihood more precarious, watch harvests that foster long-term forest health, and, at the end of the day, feel proud when we heat with wood. You can’t do that with fossil fuels (nor would many of us want to hang out on, say, an oil field in the Middle East!). 

By: Maura Adams

AWH micro TM RGB orange dotThat’s the catchy line we’re using in a campaign we’ve just launched to turn this wonderful-but-obscure technology into a well-known and much-used way to heat buildings across the Northern Forest.

We’ve worked for months with other nonprofits, state agencies, heating system companies and pellet producers to create and a marketing campaign to spread the word about Automated Wood Heat. The website tells stories about the people behind Automated Wood Heat and features a fun animation as well as FAQs and contact information for consumers.

The Feel Good Heat campaign marks a turning point in the Northern Forest Center’s strategy for promoting wood heat. For the last five years, we focused on investing financial incentives and technical assistance to get great examples of Automated Wood Heat into Northern Forest homes, businesses, and municipal buildings—and it worked!

Warm Tech illustrations Truck CMYK webWe’ve assisted with more than 150 installations, primarily in clusters we call Model Neighborhood Projects. Together those projects have generated over $2.8 million in economic impact and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 3,500 tons. Property owners considering Automated Wood Heat anywhere in the Northern Forest can see installations near them, feel confident that they can get bulk delivery of pellets, and take advantage of state incentives for these heating systems.

This base of early adopters is essential to prove how well Automated Wood Heat works, but we wanted to scale up use of this technology beyond what we could possibly achieve through the limits of our financial incentives, so we steered our strategy toward marketing.