Updated: May 2014

Curbing Climate Change

Climate Change

The Potential of Biomass to Curb Global Warming

For most Americans living in the northern United States, heating produces more household carbon emissions than any other activity. Out of the 20 tons of carbon that the average Changing the way we look at the worldAmerican emits each year, five to 10 tons can be from heating if you live in the northern half of the US.

At a macro level, heating accounts for more carbon emissions, and thus more global warming, than any other activity in the residential sector. Heating results in an average of 345 million metric tons (MMT) each year, whereas air conditioning, the second largest source of emissions, accounts for about 147 MMT nationwide.

Per dollar invested, wood or pellet stoves and boilers can reduce more carbon emissions than any other heating energy source. In a significant portion of the middle of this country, a wood or pellet stove can supply 80 – 100 percent of necessary heat for small and mid-sized homes. Installing a high quality wood or pellet stove will cost about $2,500 to $3,500. That investment can easily reduce your carbon footprint by two to four tons per year, or 10 – 20 percent of your entire emissions. Few investments of this size can deliver such a big reduction.

The Salzburger Institute for Urbanisation and Housing (SIR) in Austria recently released a study, which showed that biomass pellets offer households the most efficient method for reducing their carbon footprint. By switching from a heating oil system to a pellet heating system, the average Austrian household can avoid up to 10,000 kilograms (11 tons) of CO2 emissions. This is more than the emission reduction potential of all other renewables and efficiency measures.

The SIR study also found that using highly efficient insulation materials throughout the home, a retrofit which on average costs four times more than installing a biomass heating system would only offer CO2 savings of around 3300 kilograms (3.6 tons).

How much carbon can the United States avoid through "green" heat?

The residential sector in America consists of about 80 million detached, single family households, including mobile homes (as of 2010). Approximately more than two percent already use wood and pellets as a primary source of heat - a huge population that is already preventing the addition of two to four million tons of carbon to the atmosphere every year. Even if prices of natural gas remain relatively cheap, oil prices rise, and government tax incentives increased, it is not inconceivable that another one percent of US households (1.2 million more homes) could start using biomass as a primary heat source within the next 5 years.

Currently, an average of 200,000 freestanding wood and pellet stoves are purchased every year. A wood or pellet stove is easily capable of offsetting one to three tons of carbon while meeting 60 percent of home heating needs, even in the northern half of the US. Many of those 200,000 stoves, particularly the larger ones that are used daily, will result in two or three tons of avoided carbon emissions.

A pellet stove can and often does run 24/7 and is usually a home’s primary heat source. Pellet stoves typically make as much or more energy than residential solar panels, and are catching up with wood stove sales. Pellet stoves have not yet ever sold more than wood stoves, but they came close in 2006 and 2008. It is likely only a matter of time before they top annual wood stove sales.

Collectively, these additional stoves coming on the market will soon be replacing enough oil, gas, electric and propane heat to avoid the emission of a million tons of carbon every year.

Poverty, home heating and carbon emissions in America

Home heating is the single largest home energy bill, and the need to address affordability of heating solutions is essential for low-income populations that disproportionately rely on biomass in many rural areas. Low-income households often spend more than one-third of their annual energy costs on heating their homes during the winter. One survey by the National Energy Assistance Director’s Association revealed that 70 percent of the 35 million or so low-income households in the United States were cutting back on food to cover the cost of heating their homes in 2008.

In colder states, heating can account for up to two-thirds of annual energy bills, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). On average, heating an American home with natural gas produces about 6,400 pounds of carbon dioxide. Use electricity, and carbon emissions average about 4,700 pounds. In Minnesota the numbers can jump to 8,000 pounds of carbon for natural gas and 9,900 pounds for electric heat. Cord wood and pellets are a much more affordable heating fuel with the potential to shrink skyrocketing energy bills. Coal is cost-effective in certain regions, but its high carbon emissions eliminate it as a viable alternative home heating fuel.
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