CHESTERFIELD, LINCOLN — With fresh memories of the recent heat wave, now seems like an odd time to consider the benefits of renewable wood heating energy. But it's actually the perfect time to start thinking about a new heating system that uses wood.
Across the state, there are more and more examples of low emission and efficient wood energy technologies being employed to replace fossil fuel systems for heating schools, government buildings, and institutions. Increasing the use of wood fuels for heat reduces energy costs, creates and retains local jobs, and improves the management of our woodlands.
Massachusetts is the eighth most-forested state, with 62 percent of its land in forest cover. With the closure of many pulp mills in Maine, there has been an enormous drop in demand for the low-quality trees and logs used to make paper. Markets for this "low-grade" wood are vital to any effort to improve the quality of the trees growing in our woodlands.
Conversion of heating oil and propane systems to those that burn wood chips or pellets represents a great opportunity to replace some of the lost demand, put people to work, and save money. Hospitals, schools, towns, homeowners, and businesses have all benefited from converting from fossil fuel systems to modern wood heating systems. Massachusetts woodlands also benefit from the timber stand improvement, and in some cases from reduction of wildfire risk.
Few consumers in Massachusetts can claim to know where their heating oil or natural gas comes from. By using locally harvested biomass for heating, this disconnect between our energy production and consumption disappears. Even pellets, sometimes classified as " regional" are a "local" fuel when you consider how far oil or natural gas is traveling to reach our state.
To know where a wood heating fuel originates creates a feeling of partnership with the landowners and businesses that steward our natural resources. Most consumers of fossil fuel generally participate in the quest for the lowest price, but consumers purchasing wood fuel also participate in this local interaction of biomass markets and forest stewardship.
Consider these success stories:
* The Southern Berkshire Regional School District in Sheffield installed two pellet boilers and now saves $40,000 in fuel costs each year. The school anticipates earning alternative energy credits from the state once regulations are finalized.
* The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation's western regional office in Pittsfield added a new wood pellet heating system in 2014 that is saving DCR about $10,000 each year in fuel costs.
* Buxton School in Williamstown heats a science building with a small, cordwood boiler. Students help refuel the system as part of a work-study program, and the school sources the wood from its 100 acres of managed woodlands.
Wood heat is ideal for rural communities with access to plentiful supplies of chips and pellets. Many of these communities have thin tax bases from which to fund their school and municipal budgets. The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER) Schools and Public Housing Integrated Renewables and Efficiency initiative (SAPHIRE), has been used to fund new wood heating systems at schools in Ashfield and Charlemont in the Mohawk Trail/Hawlemont Regional School District in Franklin County. DOER and the MA Clean Energy Center have a number of grant and rebate programs that can assist cities, towns, businesses, and individuals to convert to efficient wood chip or pellet systems.
The Massachusetts Statewide Wood Energy Team can provide interested communities, organizations, and individuals with information on technology options, sustainable wood fuels, resource data, incentive programs and access to technical assistance.
Modern wood heating is playing a key role in helping to stimulate rural economic development — without requiring new pipelines — while increasing energy self-reliance and the prospects for a greener planet.
Matt L. Barron is a member of Massachusetts Forest Alliance's Policy Committee Bryn Gingrich is Communications and Outreach Director for Massachusetts Forest Alliance