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!). 

There’s another way wood pellet heat beats oil, hands-down: switching from oil to wood pellets cuts greenhouse gases by over 50%. Even though the industry still depends on diesel and gas-powered equipment to produce pellets, the total process of producing pellets and heating with them causes far less environmental harm than using oil. For a detailed comparison, check out this life-cycle analysis of the greenhouse gas impact of using wood pellets

Some people think the only way forward is zero impact energy, but that’s a workable solution for only a small percentage of the population. Here in the forest-covered Northeast, with our cold winters and old houses, switching to wood pellet heat is a huge step forward.

And when you switch to wood pellet heat, you’re helping employ hundreds of people in local pellet mills and at their suppliers, contributing to local communities and economies. Pellet mills provide markets for forestland owners and have kept pellet prices nearly flat for many years. Wouldn’t you rather have a neighbor, rather than far-away investors and global leaders, setting the price of your heating fuel?

Need a deeper dive into this alternative? Take a look at www.feelgoodheat.org to learn more about Automated Wood Heat and related resources, including incentives for wood heating systems and links to equipment distributors.

As individuals, we can’t control geopolitical decisions – but we can control our own decisions and gain greater independence, a closer connection to our neighbors and the land, and local pride.