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An Old-Style Energy Crisis Leaves Vermonters With Axes to Grind - WSJ

An Old Style Energy Crisis Leaves Vermonters With Axes to Grind WSJ

“There’s an old saying: He who heats wood is thrice warmed,” said Ms. Tresselt, an editor and artist. “You’re warmed when you cut it, you’re warmed when you stack it, you’re warmed when you burn it.”


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The number of U.S. households using wood as their primary heating fuel rose 33% between 2005 and 2013, according to American Community Survey data, though that represents just 2.1% of the population. The U.S. Energy Information Administration expects another 3.9% increase this year. In Vermont, 18% of residents use wood as a primary heating fuel. Thousands more use wood as a backup during power outages and buy logs to burn in fireplaces when it gets cold. Chris Brooks, chief executive of Vermont Wood Pellet Co. LLC, says he is planning to open a second mill to keep up with demand.

India Tresselt and Andrew Fulton installed a wood stove in September after their heating-oil bill for last winter was more than $1,000 over what they had budgeted.

“We’re very tickled,” said Ms. Tresselt, 56, who lives in Westford. “There’s nothing as cozy as a wood stove.”

So is it a good thing or a bad thing that more wood is being burned?

The effect more people burning wood for heating will have on the climate is extremely complex, said Drew Shindell, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration climate researcher who co-authored 2012 study on how short-lived climate pollutants, including soot and methane, can be reduced globally. 

"If you have emissions from wood (burning) in the Northeast, it's pretty easy for the pollution to get carried farther up to the north, all the way up into the Arctic and into Greenland," Shindell said. "When the black carbon comes down on the snow and ice, it really darkens it."

Heating oil and propane burn more cleanly than wood. Soot from wood stoves blowing into the Arctic can lead to more warming there in the short term as the darkened ice absorbs more heat. 

But over the long term, the effect of more wood smoke emissions is more complicated because the wood is replacing the use of propane, heating oil and other fossil fuels, Shindell said.

"There's a tradeoff to be made," he said. "It really depends on how clean the wood-burning stoves are and what source of power they're replacing.

"From an air pollution point of view, this (switching from heating oil or propane to wood for heating fuel) is probably not such a good thing, and near-term climate in the Arctic, not such a good thing," Shindell said. "For long-term climate and CO2, it probably is a good thing. It is a complicated tradeoff."

That IS a complicated tradeoff. I'm confused.