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Up in Smoke

There’s something homey and comforting about a wood fire. Who doesn’t love a good campfire, a happy fireplace?

That feeling, I’ve noticed, sometimes seems to pour over onto actual heating-with-wood as well. Wood heat shows up as an assumed component of back-to-the-land, post-peak-oil sustainable lifestyle, or at least a compatible one, in many quarters.

This doesn’t feel like a stretch. Environmentally minded folks tend to be focused on how oil and natural gas are finite resources that draw us into international wars, spill on the oceans, and, closer to home, spawn ugly measures like hydrofracking (to get at less accessible natural gas reserves) that poison our drinking water and release radiation. Oil also enables car culture, which is by its nature a serious challenge to sustainability.

Wood as a fuel feels under our control, not meted out by nasty as-good-as-monopolistic corporations. Rural dwellers may be able to cut wood on their own land and feel fairly self-reliant. And besides, it just feels wholesome. So wholesome that some of the same people who scoff openly at the idea of “clean coal” think wood stoves are hunky dory.

But just as moral majority –type claims that old- fashioned simplicity in gender relations was actually better for everyone are highly suspect, nostalgia is suspect here too.

Wood burning is awfully, awfully polluting. I was talking with a friend the other day who just got back from a work trip to Fairbanks, Alaska. “How was Fairbanks?” we asked.

“Polluted,” he said. “It’s really sad.”

“Polluted?” we asked, thinking oil spills or the like.

“Yes,” he said. “It’s the wood boilers.”

When a town of 35,000 in Alaska is noticeably smoggy, something is wrong.

The advocacy group Clean Air Revival points out that burning solid fuel (wood, coal, biomass in general) is much more polluting—and a much worse culprit for climate change—than oil and gas. Black carbon particulates have more greenhouse gas effect than any other gas except CO2—but reducing the quantity of them could reverse warming much faster, since they will drop out of the atmosphere faster when not replaced. If we’re trying to stave off a catastrophic climate cycle, planting even two replacements that will take decades to mature for each tree burned isn’t actually a step in the right direction. (And a sharp uptick in wood heating would more likely lead to deforestation—even though intact forests are one of the most economically valuable landscapes in the Northeast.)

Fine particulate matter, also generated in spades by burning solid fuel, is a major public health hazard. (CAR has much more detail at burningissues.com.) Some communities have banned the use of wood stoves on high pollution days.

In short, it’s hard to make an eco case for heating primarily with wood. How you do it matters of course. Catalytic and pellet stoves are somewhat better. Outdoor wood boilers are the worst: the emissions from one are equivalent to 22 EPA certified wood stoves, 205 oil furnaces, or as many as 8,000 natural gas furnaces. It’s like having four heavy duty diesel trucks idling in your backyard. (If you live in Albany, consider letting Councilman Jim Sano know you support a proposed ban on these public health hazards in the city.)

But all wood heat is much worse for the air than what most of us have been using. Our population is too large and our atmosphere too damaged to handle the results of what was once the natural use of a renewable resource.

So what should we do? It’s still true that we can’t keep plowing through oil and natural gas, for different, but no less serious, reasons. And the local energy independence/emergency preparedness question is an important one.

The obvious first solution, as always, is conservation. Dollar for dollar, until you’ve made your house (and the rest of your life) as efficient as possible (for heating and cooling and other fuel uses), and reduced your energy needs on a behavioral level, the question of sources is nearly moot. Insulation, draft sealing, passive solar, programmable thermostats, more efficient boilers/ furnaces/hot water heaters, wool blankets and hats and long underwear—all that boring, unsexy stuff, neither nostalgic and heartwarming nor flashy and technologically exciting, is still the most immediate and effective way to reduce our use of fossil fuel for heating without adding to climate change and air pollution. And we have a loooong way to go on it. (I know I do.)

But what about after that, and what about the long run? Here’s my back-of-the-napkin vision: I’d like to see a distributed electric grid, connected across the country, but set up so that each regional node could operate on its own even when the others are down. Each local node would be publicly owned and overseen by an elected body and would be powered by a combination of small, green hydro, geothermal, wind (some wind farms and some urban wind power from the tops of skyscrapers), and distributed rooftop solar.

And, odd as it sounds to efficiency experts now, since if you’re burning something you ought to heat directly with it rather than making electricity out of it first, then we would use electric heat.

Of course, this can’t be undertaken by individual survivalist families. It means we would have to work together, take something into our own hands at a regional level, juggle supply and demand, governance, maintenance, security, and pricing. I realize it’s a lot to ask. But anything that will make an actual difference in climate change will be.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

www.mjoy.org

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