Monday, April 5, 2010

The Politics of Wood Heating

by John Gulland (Excerpts of a longer article)

March 22, 2010 - Those of a certain age may recall that thirty years ago firewood was considered a renewable energy resource. Governments assigned responsibility to departments of energy, and the message to the public was ‘burn wood, but do it safely’. This was in the wake of an energy crisis and governments were desperate to wean us off costly heating oil.

Fifteen years later in the mid-1990s, responsibility had shifted to environment departments who said ‘burn less wood because it is a source of pollution’. Environment departments promoted upgrades from old smoky stoves to low-emission models, but refrained from encouraging anyone to choose wood as a home heating fuel. Energy departments had gone virtually silent on the matter of wood heating, and besides, they had no staff expertise to back up anything they might say.

The dust-up over wood smoke pits environment and health agencies of government, as well as a host of non-governmental groups, against the individuals who burn wood. Needless to say, people who heat with wood don’t belong to a powerful user’s group that sends lobbyists to the capital cities the way that, for example, hunters and gun owners do.

Until recently almost all interaction with government agencies on the subject of wood burning involved the industry trade group, the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, whose mandate is to protect the commercial interests of its members. But now a new non-governmental organization has entered the field, bringing a refreshingly non-commercial and political tone to the conversation. Founded in 2009 near Washington D.C. and headed by John Ackerly, a serious fellow with decades of experience in NGO management and social justice, the Alliance for Green Heat has already made its presence felt.

The Alliance has laid out some clear policy objectives that set it apart from any other group we know of. For example, this group doesn’t hesitate to mention that low-income families in rural areas are a significant but mainly neglected constituency in energy discussions. Ackerly’s group wants governments to “Recognize the leadership of low and middle-income Americans in fighting climate change through the long-term, sustainable use of biomass heat” (by which they mean natural firewood and wood pellets). They also want to “Demonstrate that the benefits of biomass heat are on par with solar, wind and geothermal to lower residential carbon footprints”. These are admirable statements that we don’t hear other groups making in quite the same way.

The Alliance is aggressive in promoting cleaner burning wood heating appliances and is in the thick of EPA’s current initiative to revise and expand the rules that made low-emission certification mandatory for wood stoves in 1988. It has adopted a particularly firm stance on conventional outdoor wood boilers which are notorious for making a lot of smoke. In some areas, anger over pollution from outdoor boilers has led to a generalized condemnation of all wood heating, which makes the Alliance’s (and our) task of promoting responsible wood heating a lot more difficult.

The Alliance for Green Heat as a welcome and necessary voice in the promotion and defense of responsible home heating with wood.

Published on Energy Bulletin (

1 comment:

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