The history of firewood is well understood, but there seems to be some confusion about where firewood belongs in our current fuel strategy. Some environmentalists view firewood as dirtier than coal, others are beginning to see the big picture and hope to shape the future of how firewood is used.
Where does it come from?
Chances are any firewood you buy for home heating comes from trees harvested less than 100 miles away. Often the distance is much less. Where does your propane or heating oil come from?
Firewood could come from many places. Arborists cut down trees every day and have to pay to dispose of them. Construction crews push trees into piles with bulldozers and burn them. Deadfall litters our forests providing volatile fuel for forest fires. All of this waste would be better disposed of in a high-efficiency stove.
Where does your money go?
One overlooked aspect of the firewood trade is that all of your home heating dollars remain in the local economy. Your local oil company feeds a few families too, but not all of them live in your community. Or even your country.
What about emissions?
There is no denying that particulate emissions are the weak point in any argument for burning anything, solid fuels especially. Recent advances in wood stove design have yielded astounding results, and many stoves on the market today burn smoke and odor-free.
Still, we have to compare the entire life of the fuel being burned. We have avoided shipping crude oil thousands of miles. We have avoided the refinery. There is no transcontinental pipeline. The environmental impact of each of these things must be tallied to achieve a true comparison to firewood.
Are there enough trees?
The last thing we want to suggest is that everyone should switch to firewood. In contrast, there are many areas of the country with such an abundance of wood they can only get $60 a cord for log lengths. These areas should be exploring wood for commercial heating applications as well as gasification units to run generators.
Before shipping wood long distances to market, local markets should be developed and expanded. A boost to the local economy is always welcome.
Firewood’s big bonus
Firewood will heat your home when the power is out. You can “make” your own fuel if you have to or just want to. And the price doesn’t spike when some foreign dignitary says “boo,” a refinery explodes or a pipeline leaks.
What’s the catch?
Burning firewood requires effort. It is not for the lazy or absent-minded. The money saved is reflected in the amount of labor and attention required. Most who burn wood consider it exercise and sort of a hobby.
The bottom line
There is a place for firewood in under the heading of “alternative fuels” in thinking about our domestic fuel policy. It should be used to its greatest potential where it is most abundant, and burned thoughtfully where it is not. High-efficiency wood stoves and enthusiastic, well-educated consumers are the key to using this resource most wisely, reducing our carbon footprint while also reducing our dependence on foreign oil.