Cold snap burning you up?

This blog was written by John D. Wilson, former Deputy Director for Regulatory Policy at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | January 7, 2010 | Energy Policy

Across the southeast and beyond, we’ve been “enjoying” a pretty crisp cold snap. For my family, it started with a lovely, deep and playful snowfall the weekend before Christmas. That brought the kids outdoors – but the recent colder temperatures made outdoor activities planned for New Year’s a hurried affair.

We’ve also been using our fireplace. In our old house back in Asheville, we had a clean-burning wood stove. We relied on it as our primary source of heat.

There are two big “environmental” questions around burning wood for heat. Is it clean and healthy? And does it cause global warming?

The Sierra Club has a very helpful write-up on fireplaces and your health. But thinking about health and fireplace use can be complicated, for example there are cleaner fireplaces, such as the Rumford design, in some houses.

In a previous job, I spent a lot of time considering how to reduce the health effects of soot (technically speaking, fine particulate air pollution) on health. I can suggest that for most people (those without special health sensitivity), occasional fireplace use is not a health hazard.

Our fireplace is probably below-average in terms of cleanliness. I’ve seen a lot worse, but it isn’t efficient by any means. So we are strictly using it on weekend evenings and holidays, and not even all the time then. It is pleasant, keeps the house warm, and isn’t enough exposure to significantly affect anyone’s health.

In contrast, at our home in Asheville, we used the wood-burning stove for heat all week long, morning and night, with the natural gas furnace as a backup.

What about global warming emissions? There is much legitimate concern about the impact of growing large amounts of wood and energy crops as fuel. The problem isn’t so much the burning itself, but the carbon released into the atmosphere as a result of the land cleared to accommodate the additional growth. As Gregory Morris of the Green Power Institute has pointed out, virtually all biopower (electricity generation and heat generation from biomass resources) comes from waste and residues.

I’d be surprised if anyone burning wood in the fireplace is getting that wood from a commercial firewood operation. Everyone I’ve ever bought wood from is a woodcutter who salvages the wood and sells it. The cost of the wood covers the labor in cutting up the tree and delivery – the wood itself is basically a waste product that is being “disposed of” when I burn it.

What about cost? Well, in my experience an efficient wood-burning stove can cut your heat bill. However, that stove needs to be carefully matched to your home or small business in order to truly cut your bills.

Bottom line? Enjoy your fireplace, but if it is not clean or efficient, do so in moderation. And especially if you use electric heat, you are making a (small) contribution towards reducing global warming pollution.

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