Wood provides an alternative to fossil fuel use

Heating, cooling and wood are comfortable and long-established partners when considering alternatives to fossil fuel use. Although, the media spotlight too frequently shines only on power generation.

January 2, 2019 - Author: ,

Now, with long nights and cold temperatures, many people are acutely aware of the need for heat and how many dollars are required to feed that need.  Roughly 40 percent of Michigan’s total energy budget is expended on heating and cooling. However, many people use the words “energy” and “electricity” as synonyms, leaving heating and cooling out of the discussion, as well as transportation. This tends to push fuel sources for heat onto the back-burner, so to say.

Within the residential sector, about three-quarters of Michiganders heat with natural gas. This is the least expensive and automated way to heat homes, as long as the environmental costs of extraction, distribution, and waste are left out of the equation.

For those off the natural gas grid, most heat with propane or electricity. That’s about 650,000 households. It’s this market that might benefit from less expensive wood and wood pellet heating appliances, as well as those homeowners on the grid that dearly regard environmental quality. 

For those hearty souls happy with processing firewood, and haven’t a concern about smoking-out neighbors, then a wide range of stoves and outdoor boilers are available. Roughly 130,000 households have done this already. The are some excellent products available. These technologies are the least expensive heating alternative by quite a margin.  However, messing with wood isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

Advanced, fully-automated wood pellet furnaces and boilers (much different than stoves), have a huge potential to satisfy those on a budget, that desire clean heating, and don’t want to do much more than adjusting a thermostat. Southwest Michigan is an especially “ripe” landscape. However, there are three problems with achieving these admirable goals in home heating.

One, the capital cost is high, especially for homes “wired” for electric heat. However, if one looks at the total cost over the life of the appliance, it’s usually less expensive than propane and easily less expensive than electricity. And, the costs of fossil fuels are likely to rise, while the costs of wood pellets are likely to remain stable.

Two, delivering wood pellets, in the manner of propane or fuel oil, requires enough customer demand to support a specialized truck.  A marketing plan and, perhaps, some patient capital, will be needed. But once a bulk pellet delivery network is established, we’ll have the beginnings of a significant renewable, sustainable, and local economic driver. 

Three, HVAC companies must be aware of and be trained to install these advanced wood pellet appliances. Currently, most HVAC companies are unfamiliar with the technology. There is one HVAC company in all of Michigan that’s trained in the installation of these advanced wood pellet appliances.    

For larger buildings with more square footage than houses, heating (and cooling) with wood chips is an even easier financial sell. Schools and hospitals are common users of these technologies, although the wood products industries have been following this low-cost pathway for decades.  Wood is, by far, the most common renewable energy source for Michigan, especially in the heating and cooling sector.

Michigan is home to one of the few manufacturers of these wood chip systems. Messersmith Manufacturing has over a hundred deployments around the nation. That means even more home-grown potential for the state economy. 

The next upward tier towards more renewable energy independence are the large, community-level, combined heat and power (CHP) stations that are so common in many of the more energy-advanced European nations. The closest example to Michigan, perhaps, is the CHP plant that heats and cools downtown St. Paul, Minnesota. 

These CHP facilities supply heating and cooling first, as district energy, and are then large enough to emplace an electricity-generating turbine into the mix. This makes sense, as the combustion of anything, including fossil fuels, generates far more energy as heat than power. Most power plants throw-away most of the energy as waste heat.   

District energy is a distributed network that heats multiple buildings from a central heating facility. Michigan has a couple of these examples, such as Bordine’s Nursery in Grand Blanc and the Pinecrest Medical Care Facility in Powers. 

Perhaps, the most interesting component of all these technologies is that they’re market-ready. In the renewable energy world, this is the low-hanging fruit. Sometimes the easiest solutions are among the best solutions. 


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