Energy is actively debated on several fronts these days. The Gulf of Mexico oil spill, drilling in the arctic, and the Alberta tar sands spark debate about the environmental wisdom of continued oil exploitation. Climate change is caused mainly by the combustion of fossil fuels, something that goes on at a spectacular rate around the world. Peak oil - meaning the maximum possible global production rate of conventional oil - has entered the mainstream discussion after a decade of lurking in the shadows.
But judged by policy discussions about our energy future, wood heating is virtually nonexistent.
Most politicians are unaware of its role, much less debate its merits or plan for its strategic use. The one area where wood burning does attract attention is the problem of air pollution. As a result, wood burning has become most often identified as a problem to be solved rather than as an opportunity to be harvested. Almost no governments encourage homeowners to heat with wood. Fuelwood is the only renewable energy resource that most public officials and environmental organizations don’t seem comfortable with.
The low profile of wood heating in energy policy discussions and in the media reflects the fact that policy — even rural policy — is developed in big cites, and that the large media outlets are all urban in location and outlook. Large corporations are not involved in wood heating, so there are no high-priced lobbyists or special interest groups prowling the halls of government pleading the case of wood burning. Despite the fact that millions of families heat their homes with wood, its role as an energy source rarely appears on government or media radar.
In a world of touch-screen convenience, pocket-sized computers and automatic climate-controlled environments, wood heating is in every way rough, basic and steadfastly hands-on. People who heat with wood seem out of step with the modern world swirling around them. Maybe wood burners and those who labor to supply them with fuel have slipped through a crack in the cozy consensus of modernity. Or are they onto something meaningful that has been missed by the mainstream?
The producers and consumers of fuelwood are engaged in an activity that reduces net greenhouse gas emissions while others merely fret about global warming. The fuelwood fraternity uses a renewable energy resource, taking pressure off dwindling supplies of ever-pricier and scarce fossil fuels. Buyers of fuelwood create jobs close to home and strengthen their local communities at a time when local commerce is gaining prominence as an economic survival strategy.
Families that heat with wood know more about the cause-and-effect relationships of energy production and consumption than those who simply pay utility bills. The story of wood heating early in the 21st century is about average families making decisions based on how they see their future unfolding.
Heating with wood is about a lot more than home heating. It is a tangible expression of self-reliance, of the courage to buck the trends and to resist the appeal of sedentary, push-button convenience. Heating with wood reinforces links to the land and is a willing submission to the cycle of the seasons. It provides stability and security in a turbulent world.
To its owner, the woodlot is a living community in constant evolution, while to the urban observer it may be seen as a museum in which the removal of a tree exhibit renders it diminished. The woodlot owner watches its quality improve over the years, even as it yields products and creates employment. The owner’s household earns part of its income by being a fuel supplier to the neighbors, which is a gentle way to produce energy compared to mountain-top-removal coal mining and nuclear reactors.
Fuelwood is the ultimate populist energy resource, the most easily accessed and affordable of all renewable energies. The major environmental impact of wood heating is visible for all to see in the form of smoke emissions, making those who use it instantly accountable for their actions. The families that heat with wood and those that supply them with fuel do so quietly, without fanfare or acknowledgement. This is a private activity in which virtually everyone involved is content to remain anonymous as they keep their families warm through their own labor and ingenuity.
But with so few individuals and groups speaking up to defend the responsible use of wood fuel, the families that depend upon it may soon be faced with unreasonable restrictions. Those who want to see wood heating banned are gaining influence, and more governments are treating wood heating as a pollution problem and not as a renewable energy resource that needs to be improved.
With governments preoccupied with economic turbulence and households worried about meeting monthly payments, it would seem a good time to take wood heating seriously as one possible response to the environmental and economic mess we find ourselves in. Clearly, wood heating is not suitable for every household, and firewood is not a good fuel for urban areas. But more households in forested regions might turn to firewood if they were exposed to a balanced discussion of its pros and cons.
The most reliable commentators on energy and environmental issues say we can’t keep doing business as usual. We can’t keep burning fossil fuels forever because we've used up the cheap stuff and we’ve disrupted the climate in the process. There are no perfect energy sources on the drawing board poised to fill the gap left by peaking fossil fuels.
We need to have a grown up discussion of energy issues and part of that discussion should include the place of wood heating in the mix.