Analysis shows wood pellet fuel reduces greenhouse gas emissions by more than half over fossil fuels

The Northern Forest Center commissioned a study of the greenhouse gas impacts of heating buildings with state-of-the-art wood pellet boilers. The Spatial Informatics Group-Natural Assets Laboratory (SIG-NAL) used data specific to the region’s forest composition and harvest practices, and the pellet sourcing and manufacturing of 9 out of 10 Northern Forest pellet mills, all of which produce pellets exclusively for thermal (heat) generation.

GHG chart net impact from zero with labelsThe life-cycle analysis, which accounts for all greenhouse gas emissions from sourcing, processing, and transporting fuels, finds that:

  • On day one, using wood pellets for heat reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 54% compared to oil and 59% to natural gas.

  • After 50 years, greenhouse gas emissions from pellets drop to 62% less than oil, 67% less than natural gas, and 56% less than propane.


For more information, take a look at a fact sheet summary.
The analysis by Thomas Buchholz, PhD. and John Gunn, PhD., Spatial Informatics Group-Natural Assets Labratory (SIG-NAL), has been peer reviewed and published in the journal ScienceDirect.

Net Emissions Comparison

Fuel comparison GHG study 50years










Almost half of pellet content recaptured from other uses

In 2015, the average Northern Forest- produced wood pellet was comprised of:

  • 44% sawdust and other byproducts of forest product manufacturing—wood that was cut for other purposes;
  • 56% low-quality pulpwood and small trees, usually the byproduct of harvesting for higher value timber;
  • Less than 1% from other sources, such as landscaping and municipalities.

Learn more about our work on Automated Wood Heat.

Take a look at our FAQs.

Read the detailed Methodology here.

About the Study

SIG-NAL analyzed the greenhouse gas impacts of using modern wood heat in the Northern Forest using a forest sector life-cycle assessment tool and data not previously available.

Important Factors

  • The mix of energy sources used in pellet production at 9 of 10 mills in the region;
  • Harvest levels. The results described in this summary are based on forest harvesting at 2015 levels, with the assumption that increased demand for pellet fiber is offset by reductions in other markets (see page 2) for no net increase in harvesting;
  • Tree regrowth; and
  • Forest dynamics and natural impacts that can affect unharvested trees and result in release of stored carbon.

Measuring the greenhouse gas impact of any heating fuel requires accounting for all emissions in production and use of the fuel, including:

  • All the greenhouse gases associated with producing the fuel (including extraction or harvesting, manufacturing or processing, transportation);
  • Greenhouse gases emitted by the fuel when used;
  • Efficiency of the heat generation system being used; and
  • Carbon stocks in the forest such as live and dead trees (in the case of using wood).

SIG-NAL used US Forest Service forest inventory data to define forest types and age classes for 2 representative wood supply areas within a 50 mile radius of the pellet plant, and used growth and yield projections from the Northeast Variant of the US Forest Service Forest Vegetation Simulator (FVS-NE) to examine the results of forest management options. SIG-NAL derived initial stand type and tree lists from Maine FIA plot data, which due to similarities across the Northern Forest, provided a reasonable estimation of growth response to management at the landscape scale. SIG-NAL used a new pellet life cycle assessment module for the ForGATE Forest Sector Greenhouse Gas Assessments Tool for Maine1  to calculate total emissions for scenarios with and without pellet mills. (1Hennigar, C., L. Amos-Binks, R. Cameron, J.S. Gunn, D.A. MacLean, and M. Twery. 2013. ForGATE - A Forest-sector GHG Assessment Tool for Maine: Calibration and Overview. Gen. Tech. Rep. NRS-116.
Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station. 54

Full Methodology is available here

For answers to your questions, take a look at our FAQs.

Why markets for wood pellets help save forests from development

Changing markets make room for pellet production

Forests—and changing markets—provide the opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas impacts by heating with local, renewable wood pellets instead of fossil fuels.

GHG chart Maine harvest data excerpt labels webMarket changes

Major traditional markets for low-grade wood, such as paper making, continue to shrink in the Northern Forest. The drop in demand creates an opportunity to shift pulpwood toward pellet manufacturing.

  • Eleven pulp mills have closed in the Northern Forest since 1999, reducing demand for low-grade pulpwood.
  • Between Oct. 2013 and April 2016, Maine lost 4 million tons, or 36%, of its low-grade wood market. Most of this reduction is not reflected on harvest volume graph at right.

Landowners rely on markets for low-grade wood that is harvested to improve long-term timber production, recreation and more. Pellets are an important part of the low-grade wood market. Steady markets for low-grade wood help landowners maintain forestland instead of converting it to non-forest uses such as development. See how we're working to drive demand for efficient pellet heat.

Forest volume context

GHG chart 2015 Net Growth Harvest w labelsAn analysis of 2015 forest inventory data shows that the live volume of timber in forests in Maine, New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont is increasing. Annual forest net growth exceeds annual harvest.

  • Net Growth:  21.6 million cords annually.
  • Harvest:  12.6 million cords annually.




Subsidies will help you switch to local, renewable heat!

Join the Northern Forest Center at the Burke Town School from 6-8pm on October 4 to learn more about modern wood heat and subsidies available for wood pellet boilers/furnaces. You’ll be able to tour the school’s pellet boiler, chat with vendors, and check out a demonstration boiler. All attendees will be entered into a drawing for a ton of premium wood pellets from Renewable Fuels of Vermont! Light refreshments will be served.

Homeowners in the Northeast Kingdom can receive $8,000 in subsidies towards installing a wood pellet boiler or furnace. Generous subsidies will soon be available for commercial and public buildings as well. These systems are efficient, clean, convenient, and cost-effective, and use a renewable, local fuel that supports the local forest economy.

When: Tuesday, Oct. 4th 6-8pm

Where: Burke Town School 3293 Burke Hollow Road, West Burke

Jay Kelli Poulin Info Session Page

 Kim Butler Info Session Page










To learn more about local, renewable heat with wood pellets, visit our Modern Wood Heat page.

Learn why people choose pellet boilers.

These incentives are a part of the Northeast Kingdom Model Neighborhood Wood Heat Initiative. Learn more about the subsidies here.

Here are some answers to Frequently Asked Questions.

 Call or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. with any questions. 802-895-4461




Modern wood pellet boilers are an economical, highly-efficient, and convenient choice for heating your small commercial space or home. “Heating local” with Northern Forest pellet retains wealth instead of sending it elsewhere—heating with oil sends 87% of wealth out of the region. Over time, heating with a pellet boiler will reduce your impact on climate change and helps keep forests as forests.

Pellet boilers are virtually seamless replacements for traditional oil-based systems. Minimal changes to the home heating system are required (depending on distribution system), and your oil boiler can remain in place if flue space allows. This graphic from the German Renewable Energy Agency shows a typical installation:

diagram of wood pellet heating system


What are the main advantages of modern wood heat?


  • Local Economic Benefits: “Heating local” with Northern Forest pellets retains wealth instead of sending it elsewhere (78% of money spent on oil leaves the region) and creates or sustains jobs.
  • Fuel Cost: Premium wood pellets currently cost about 40% less than heating oil.
  • Fuel Resource: The forest resource is renewable and locally available, and provides a more stable source compared to imported fuels traveling through global transportation networks.
  • Consumer Convenience: Modern wood pellet boilers are automatically fed by contained storage bins and refilled by bulk delivery trucks on a regular basis – no pellet handling is involved, and maintenance is minimal.
  • Particulate Emissions: Replacing an outdoor wood boiler or wood stove with a modern pellet boiler dramatically reduces a household’s particulate emissions.
  • Local Pride: Just as consumers have endorsed local food in recent years, they are beginning to understand the value of local heat as well. Many northern communities have a rich forestry legacy and residents feel proud to support it.
  • Carbon Footprint: As discussed below, using wood heat instead of fossil fuels leads to a net reduction in carbon dioxide emissions over time.


What are the downsides of heating with pellets, and what’s being done to address them?

  • Burning wood releases air pollutants, but high-efficiency modern systems emit just marginally more particulates than oil or gas heating systems. See below section on air quality.
  • Forest resources are limited. Conservative estimates suggest that only 18.5% of the Northeast could be sustainably heated with wood, but we are nowhere close to that level and the region’s forests are currently growing more than they are being harvested.
  • The carbon impact of wood heat is variable. Accurate carbon accounting must consider factors such as time, land use change, forest management practices, and the type of fuel being displaced by biomass. Biomass can be a low carbon fuel when harvested sustainably from land that is managed well over time, but it’s not guaranteed.


Using wood pellets and chips for heat instead of fossil fuels benefits our communities and our environment.

Every dollar we spend on wood pellets stays in the Northern Forest economy and supports local jobs—and strong markets for low-grade wood helps sustain healthy managed forests. 

That’s why the Center advocates for Automated Wood Heat across the Northern Forest. Since 2011 we've been providing incentives for high-efficiency wood pellet boilers, offering technical assistance for larger projects, increasing public awareness of Automated Wood Heat, and advancing public policies that support this technology.


The biggest thing is that we’re completely off oil and using the resources in our community—trees—and helping our community find jobs….It’s been a blessing all the way around.

—Maurice Bergeron, retired, Berlin, NH

Today’s Automated Wood Heating systems are clean-burning, convenient, central heating systems that use locally-made, 100% wood pellets, benefiting both our environment and our economy. Find out more by reading further and checking out the links on this page.

see the pdfDownload this PDF to see the incentives available from the Center and other sources for installing wood pellet boilers in Northern Forest states.

Learn about Automated Wood Heating

Automated Wood Heat provides all the benefits of heating with wood without the inconvenience of feeding and cleaning wood stoves by hand. Pellets arrive by truck into a hopper or silo and feed directly to the boiler when the thermostat calls for heat. 

Wood pellet boilers offer the convenience of fossil fuel heating systems while reducing net carbon dioxide emissions over time as compared to burning oil or propane. 

We’ve developed answers to Frequently Asked Questions to provide more information about Automated Wood Heat, including discussions about its environmental and public health impacts. We also recommend a couple videos:

Video 1: Biomass Energy Resource Center

Video 2: NH Wood Energy Council

Residential Financial Incentives

The Center has provided financial incentives to more than 100 homeowners over the past five years, creating clusters of installations in what we call "Model Neighborhood Projects." Those projects are complete, but each Northern Forest state offers financial incentives for wood pellet boilers. 

see the pdfClick here to view current incentives

Financial Assistance for Communities, Nonprofits & Businesses

The Center has provided financial support since 2011 for 40 commercial-scale wood pellet boilers to warm schools, senior housing, office buildings, town garages, and more. We can occasionally offer technical assistance such as grant-writing to help building owners shift to Automated Wood Heat. State incentives may be available.

see the pdfClick here to view current incentives

Grant Writing Support

The Center has a strong record of securing resources to help building owners and entrepreneurs install Automated Wood Heating systems or develop a related business. Contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., Energy Program Director, to request grant writing assistance.

Technical Assistance

Center staff often respond to general questions about Automated Wood Heating and how to advance residential or community-scale projects. We also work with a broad network of experts who can offer additional assistance as needed.

Completed Projects

The Center has supported over 150 Automated Wood Heat projects to date, mostly through Model Neighborhood Projects—clustered installations that demonstrate the value and viability of these heating systems. We've completed Model Neighborhood Projects in Berlin, NH, Farmington and Wilton, ME, and the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, and a project in the Adirondacks is ongoing. Clustering the installations makes it easy to spread the word about Automated Wood Heat, organize tours and events, and track outcomes, and makes bulk pellet delivery more economical.

Through the end of 2017 we've supported five installations in New York, 39 in Vermont, 50 in New Hampshire, and 57 in Maine. That includes 111 single-family residences and a diverse collection of other projects, including:

  • Municipal buildings in Dummer, NH; Saranac, North Hudson and Bellmont, NY; West Burke and Lunenburg, VT; and Bethel, ME
  • Four churches in Farmington, Maine, and another in Colebrook, NH.
  • A bike shop in Norway, ME
  • A dairy farm in Orford, NH
  • A movie theater in Lancaster, NH
  • An auto repair shop in Lyndonville, VT
  • An independent school in Lake Placid, NY

We're always happy to introduce people considering Automated Wood Heat to those who've already made the switch—contact us if you'd like to make a connection!