I recently posed this question to friends, and most of them – no surprise – said no. They don’t like the cost or distant sourcing of oil and propane, don’t like smoky old wood stoves, and don’t like the environmental impact of natural gas extraction. Heating often seems like a necessary evil for those of us in cold climates, who feel like we have to choose between “least bad” options – and yet heating systems exist that are actually beneficial to the regional economy, communities and environment.
I’m talking, of course, about modern wood pellet boilers. When the thermostat calls for heat, bulk storage systems automatically feed these high-efficiency, low-emission boilers with premium wood pellets. Several companies in the Northern Forest manufacture premium pellets out of low-grade wood from well-managed forests. The boilers require minimal maintenance and offer nearly the convenience and efficiency of fossil fuel systems. Even better, they retain wealth in the regional economy, cut net carbon dioxide emissions over time, create markets for low-grade wood (which supports forestland owners who are managing land sustainably and trying to grow high-value sawlogs) and reduce heating bills by 30-40%. People heating with these boilers can feel great about heating their homes!
These systems are common in parts of Europe, as I had the privilege of seeing during the annual International Biomass Training Seminar in Upper Austria. There, state-of-the-art wood pellet boilers are common and are supported by robust, well-integrated pellet delivery infrastructure. This industry has created tremendous economic returns for Upper Austria, which you can read about in this excellent case study. Witnessing the Austrian model confirmed that a sustainable, clean, wood-based energy economy really is possible, and that the Center’s Model Neighborhood approach will help us get there.
For now, exposure to modern wood pellet boilers is low in North America, and the Center is working to change that, at least here in the Northern Forest. I can see it in my work, when partners and early adopters express dismay that awareness of these heating systems isn’t greater. And whether I’m telling acquaintances what I do for work or meeting with community groups, I almost always have to explain what these systems are and what makes them beneficial. No, they’re not pellet stoves. Yes, they’re controlled with your existing thermostat. No, there’s no problem getting bulk pellets.
Modern wood heating systems have transformative potential – as long as people know about their convenience, reliability, cost savings, and community benefits! Thankfully, a number of government, non-profit and industry leaders are working hard to raise awareness about this heating option. I’ve mentioned several efforts underway in the latest Biomass Heat Advocate: tours, new demonstration projects, enhanced incentives, and more. Over time, I am confident that efforts like these will get more people to switch to modern wood pellet boilers – and to feel truly good about how they heat.