I just returned from the Heating the Midwest conference – a spinoff of the annual Northeast Biomass Heating Expo – where I learned that sharing lessons learned and the progress made in the Northeast can prove helpful to other regions. I was particularly struck by how the Northern Forest states’ investment in modern wood heat – through both demand- and supply-side incentives and other supportive policies – has been essential for market development.

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.

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 closed.no 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.