Heating and wood
As the colder season approaches, some buildings are less prepared than others. Wood-based products, such as chips or pellets, can be viable alternatives to new fossil fuel furnaces and boilers.
Heating with wood often draws images of fall excursions to the forest and crackling fires in a fireplace or wood stove. These are attractive and comfortable images. Even the old smoky outdoor boiler remains popular, although the newer gasification boilers save both money and time.
However, these traditional perceptions can interfere with understanding the advanced wood energy systems that are currently coming into the market. For residential and small business applications, pellet furnaces (different than stoves) are alternatives. For more institutional-sized buildings, or groups of buildings, a wood-chip fueled system is cost-competitive with fossil fuels.
Most residences and small businesses are heated with a furnace, which is an appliance in the basement that pushes either forced air or hot water. Replacing these furnaces with a wood pellet appliance involves higher capital costs. At current fossil fuel prices, pellets are typically more expensive. However, over the life of the appliance, fossil fuel prices may rise substantially, or fluctuate wildly. Pellet prices will likely remain stable. A homeowner will gamble with operating costs no matter which kind of furnace is used.
Pellet markets are currently occupied by those households that value environmentally-friendly technologies or are early-adopters banking on rising fossil fuel costs. Working with these customers to create a bulk delivery operation will make burning pellets as hands-off as fossil fuels. Bulk delivery pellet distributors exist in New England. The Michigan Statewide Wood Energy Team is working to create such an entity in Michigan, too.
Homes and small businesses can also be heated using one of the advanced outdoor cordwood boilers, using gasification technology. Essentially, there are two burning chambers, one for the wood and one for the gases. These boilers are more efficient and cleaner-burning than older technologies. However, these boilers require considerable “sweat equity” in the form of acquiring cordwood and feeding the boiler on a regular basis. This is the least expensive option, as long as personal labor is chalked-up as recreation.
For larger buildings or clusters of buildings, wood chip systems can be cost-competitive with fossil fuels. One of the nation’s premier system manufacturers, with more than 100 installations, calls Michigan its home. A number of Michigan case studies exist that demonstrate the wood chip advantage. Some have been installed within the past few years. Wood chip systems become cheaper to operate as they grow in size. For example, downtown St. Paul, Minnesota is heated, cooled and powered on woody feedstocks, mostly urban waste wood.
Using wood-based fuels for heating (and sometimes cooling) keeps energy dollars local and contributes to community stability and prosperity. In this way, it’s similar to the local food movement.
Roughly 40 percent of Michigan’s energy consumption is for heat, not easily served by either solar or wind technologies. Michigan’s vast forests are accumulating huge volumes of wood, and have done so for decades. Some of that accumulation could be effectively used for heating.
Using forests to meet a portion of our heating demand provides a much-needed market for low quality woody materials. Such markets offer greater choices for forest management, which helps maintain or improve forest health and a diverse set of habitat conditions. It could expand Michigan’s forest industry, currently the state’s third largest manufacturing sector.
Wood is, by far, the most environmentally-friendly raw material at our disposal. That concept has begun to be incorporated with building construction, using engineered wood building materials for tall buildings and also wood-based heating and cooling.
The use of wood to heat and cool buildings employs a set of advanced technologies that reach far beyond the traditional backyard boiler, fireplace or wood stove. These technologies have revolutionized the economies of many European countries and have migrated to New England. The Lake States have all the pieces to expand their own economies and benefit from forest resources. More can be learned from the Michigan Statewide Wood Energy Team.