Heating with Wood

In Vermont, we’re “Forest Strong.” Our 75% forested landscape constantly endows us with gifts: clean air, clean water, wildlife habitat and carbon sequestration and storage, to name a few. It also produces opportunities for forest-based recreation like skiing and mountain biking and supports local economies that thrive on these industries, all while making Vermont a beautiful place to live, work, and visit. At the same time, our forests can provide us with local, renewable resources that strengthen our communities and support a healthier environment. Such is the case with firewood.

In Vermont’s long winters, heating with firewood is a tradition. Wood accounts for about 21% of our heating needs, with 43% of Vermonters heating wholly or partially with wood. Most of that wood comes from within 50 miles of where it’s used, meaning that economic benefits stay local; by contrast, 78 cents of every dollar spent by Vermonters on fossil fuel heat leaves Vermont. Besides supporting our communities and local economies, using local wood (and local products in general) gives us more control over how our resources are extracted, rather than displacing the impacts of our consumption elsewhere in the country or the world, where resources are produced under potentially more problematic social and environmental conditions.

The way we burn wood is as important as the resource itself; fireplaces, old woodstoves and old wood boilers are inefficient, using an excess of wood and releasing particulates that can degrade air quality. “Advanced Wood Heat,” modern woodstoves, pellet boilers and chip boilers, burn more efficiently, producing emissions on par with propane and heating oil. Burning wood using advanced wood heat systems is critical to increasing usage of this resource while protecting our air quality.

The way that we harvest wood from our forests also matters; forest management should be regenerative, not solely extractive, making the forest healthier and more resilient in the long term. On a responsible timber harvest, “low-grade” wood from smaller, less healthy trees usually accounts for the majority of the wood cut, but only a small portion of the overall value. Conversely, larger, healthier trees often account for a small portion of a timber harvest’s volume and but most of its value. This is as it should be; cutting mostly unhealthy trees, which get turned into firewood, pulpwood and chips, generally improves the overall health of the forest. “High-grading” is the disreputable practice of cutting only the healthiest, most valuable trees, leaving a less healthy forest behind. Having strong markets, like firewood, for low-grade wood provides an economic incentive for loggers and landowners to do the right thing.

As we think about how to craft a more sustainable future in light of climate change and other challenges, one of the most important things that we can do is to keep our forests intact. Vermont’s forests are about 80% privately-owned, and so private landowners are ultimately responsible for most of the public benefits that forests provide, from the carbon that they store to how they define the culture and the character of our communities. Allowing landowners to harvest some wood or to make a little income from their forests offsets the costs of management and taxes, ultimately benefiting all of us by making it more affordable to own land and keeping forests as forests.

Wood pellets provide some interesting new opportunities. According to the Northern Forest Center, regionally-produced wood pellets reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 54% when replacing heating oil, and 59% when replacing natural gas. Pellets are made of compressed sawdust, so they can be created from waste, and pellet systems can be automated and thermostat-controlled, with all of the hands-off benefits of propane or fuel oil. For people who are uncomfortable with traditional methods of burning firewood but still want to source their heat locally, this is an excellent option.

The State Clean Energy Plan set the ambitious goal of achieving 90% renewable energy by 2050, including sourcing 35% of our heat from wood by 2030. The environmental and economic benefits of this would be great, allowing us to displace the use of around 40 million gallons of fossil fuels annually and saving Vermonters about $120 million a year. I would encourage you to think critically about switching to wood, and/or switching your old wood stove for a newer more efficient model. For a list of available incentives, check out the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation website.

Ethan Tapper is the Chittenden County Forester. He can be reached with an email, by phone at (802) 585-9099 or at his office at 111 West Street, Essex Junction.