Be Warm & Be Green with Wood Stoves

Photo by: Alliance For Green Heat Figure 14: Carbon Pathways (Washington Forest Protection Association)

Biomass for Heat is a Low Carbon Renewable Energy

As a low carbon source of energy, residential wood heating has the capacity to play a much larger role in the movement to reduce fossil fuel use in American homes. The sustainable harvest of biomass can accrue environmental benefits as well. This section will discuss the numerous ways in which biomass heat is a low-carbon energy source, a renewable fuel with the substantial capacity to displace fossil fuels, a powerful incentive to keep forests as forests, and a source of other environmentally beneficial effects.

Low Carbon Fuel Source


Biomass for heating use is considered a low-carbon energy source for many reasons. The primary reason is that the carbon released from combustion of wood does not add to the existing atmospheric carbon pool; rather, the carbon released during combustion would have been released due to natural forces of decomposition or forest fire. Given that the forest is managed sustainably, the carbon released from burning wood is re-sequestered by the next generation of growth. Since the scale of residential biomass heat is much smaller than biomass for ethanol or electricity, and has a more favorable carbon profile due to the increased efficiency of utilization for equivalent energy output, the initial ‘carbon debt’ from combusting trees is more easily replaced by sustainable re-growth.1

While the period between the initial release and re-sequestration of CO2 is a concern, one study that recently explored this issue, the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences’ ”Study of Wood Biomass Energy” in 2010 suggests that biomass for thermal use is climate positive.2 When paired with highly efficient heating technologies and sustainable forest management regimes, carbon emissions from wood combustion can be short lived in the atmosphere, providing substantial greenhouse gas reduction benefits over time by virtue of reducing fossil fuel use.

Burning fossil fuels takes carbon out of a stabilized form under the ground and introduces it to the mobile carbon pool, resulting in a long-term increase in the net atmospheric concentrations of CO2. On the other hand, burning a tree merely re-releases carbon that was absorbed from the atmosphere during the lifecycle of the organism.4 Because of this, clear definitions of sustainable forest management and effective policies that govern cordwood extraction and pellet production are viewed as an important component for maintaining a robust natural carbon cycle and thus ensuring that the low carbon benefits of wood heat are realized.
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