The case for heating with wood

If you’ve been looking for eco- and wallet-friendly ways to heat your business, facility or home, you might have heard about wood-fuel heating. But you might also have some questions about just how “green” it is to heat with wood.

There is a lot of conflicting information and opinion out there, and it can be hard to wade through the clutter. This article summarizes what we know about the economic, energetic AND environmental benefits of using wood fuel for heat. 

Fact #1: Canada is cold.

One thing we need to remember when thinking about using wood for heat is that no matter what energy source we use, we need one for heat in Canada. It’s cold here half the year (or more) and we need a way to heat our homes, businesses and community spaces.

According to a report published by FPInnovations, Canada is the world’s largest per capita consumer of heat after Iceland and Norway: we each use, on average, twice as much energy for heat as folks in the US or the UK. In Ontario alone, almost 60% of total energy consumed is for heating (and a modest amount for cooling). And the report also shows that despite the widespread popularity of natural gas, Ontario uses more than double the amount of heating oil and propane for heat as all of western Canada (BC through to Manitoba) and almost as much as Atlantic Canada as a whole.

It takes a lot of energy to keep us warm. But we can make different choices about how we generate this energy. Instead of continuing to rely on dwindling and expensive fossil fuels, we can move towards wood as a low-carbon, affordable heating option that also helps local economies.

Fact #2: Wood fuel makes the most sense for heat.

We often hear the concern that burning wood fuel isn’t carbon-neutral like solar or wind power. That’s true: solar and wind are both excellent clean energy sources and we should continue to invest in these alternative power sources. But they aren’t great for generating heat. 

To keep people warm throughout our coldest seasons, we need renewable energy that is also reliable, with systems that are easy to operate, and available at low and stable costs. This is where wood fuel and modern wood heating systems outpace solar or wind in Canada – and why other northern countries with vast supplies of forest, like Norway and Sweden, are already invested in wood heat.

As a country, we need to harness our forests as a sustainable source of fuel. Compared to fossil fuels, wood is a low-carbon energy source that can be harvested, burned and regrown forever. In Canada, we are blanketed by a large and productive forest. And our sustainable forestry practices, already recognized internationally as some of the most rigorous in the world, ensure regrowth and protection.

For example, according to Natural Resources Canada, while our 348 million hectares of forest lands represent about 9% of the world’s forest, Canada accounts for only about 0.3% of global deforestation. And, we have 166 million hectares of forest land that is independently certified as sustainably managed: that’s 40% of the world’s certified forests and more than any other country in the world.

And in the 2018 report HEAT: Ontario’s Opportunity to Rebuild the Forest Sector, Ensure Economic Resiliency, and Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions, authors Jamie Stephen and Malcolm Cecil-Cockwell show that many provinces, including Ontario, already have a supply chain for this sustainable and renewable fuel source. In particular, mill and harvest residues from the current forest industry can be used to produce solid biofuel, including millions of tonnes of wood pellets each year, that may otherwise become a waste product. 

Plus, solid wood fuel is a safe form of energy, especially during transport. Compared to other forms of liquid fossil fuel energy, if spilled, wood simply decomposes naturally without any harmful effects on people or our environment.

Fact #3. Modern wood heating systems are a clean, green choice.

Often, when people hear “wood heating” they think of sooty, smoky fireplaces and wood stoves. Or they worry that burning wood for fuel on a community-wide scale will further pollute our atmosphere. 

But modern wood heating systems are designed to minimize smoke, soot and pollution. There is still some particulate emission with these systems, but it is far less than what is produced by more commonly used fuel sources like burning oil. 

The FPInnovations report provides several good examples of the scale of innovation: a single traditional fireplace produces more than 1,000 times the particulate matter of a modern wood pellet boiler. Likewise, we know from cities like Stockholm, where some large buildings and energy plants are now being powered entirely by modern wood heating systems, that air pollutant emissions are considered negligible compared to emissions from vehicles and residential heating still reliant on fossil fuels and outdated systems.

And the report reminds us that harvesting wood for fuel from sustainably managed forests also helps to improve air quality by reducing the number and severity of forest fires. Wildfires are a leading source of Ontario’s particulate matter emissions and pose a real threat to our health. As our climate continues to warm, and wildfire risk increases, thinning our well-managed forests of damaged, diseased and low-productivity trees, and using that wood as a low-carbon fuel source, is both economically and environmentally beneficial.

Fact #4. Wood heat helps rural and remote communities. 

Rural and remote communities, including many northern and First Nation communities in Canada, have a pressing need to replace the costly, unreliable fuels they currently rely on for heat. 

A recent report counted that as many as 800,000 households in Canada are off the electric grid, and almost 240 remote communities rely on diesel fuel that is flown, barged or trucked in – when it’s possible to do so. 

Shipping in fuel like diesel power, which only benefits oil companies, can’t compare to the benefits of wood heating for these communities in terms of reliability, cost, and the related jobs and economic opportunities created for residents.

Some First Nations are already realizing the potential of wood heat for their communities. For example, Wikwemikong First Nation continues to be the Ontario leader in moving from fuel oil to renewable biomass heat. They have already reached 822 kW of installed capacity with 8 separate institutional retrofits. 

Fact #5. Heating with wood pays off.

Like many well-designed products, modern wood heating systems are an initial investment. But the return on your investment is huge.

Wood fuel is reliably cheap to buy, and more efficient, so you will realize significant cost savings once you start using your new system.

Wood fuel also supports local economies. Our reliance on fossil fuels means money goes to big companies, other regions, and even other countries. Wood fuel can be locally sourced and supplied, or delivered regionally, keeping profits and jobs in your community. Companies that sell modern wood heat systems and wood fuel, like Biothermic, also provide local jobs and opportunities that benefit regional economies.

To recap, here are some key points to remember about the benefits of heating with wood fuel:

√      Low and stable energy costs

√      Renewable and low-carbon heat source

√      Lower environmental impact and risk than fossil fuels

√      Reliable fuel supply and easy-to-operate systems

√      Support for local jobs and regional economic development

√      Particularly beneficial in remote and rural communities

Want to learn more about the benefits of wood heating? Watch our video: Why Biomass (Wood!) heating is a smart and carbon neutral choice.

Questions about modern wood heating systems? Browse our FAQs or contact us directly.