In this section, we will profile a wide variety of Green Heat Heroes – people who have pioneered various aspects of wood and pellet heating. If you know of someone or some group that you think should be profiled, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In New England, a broad swath of the population has contributed very little to climate change with space and water heating in their homes because they have used wood for years. In the early 1900s, modern heat was coal heat and many urban and suburban residents tossed their wood burning stoves and never looked back.
Charlie and Mildred Clark were among many Americans who never fully switched to fossil fuel heating, because they lived in a rural area where wood was cheaper than coal, and later, much cheaper than oil or gas. Charlie supplied eight to 10 cords of wood each year, mainly, by himself, from his own land by carefully and sustainably managing his own woodlot. In the 50 years that they lived in Lyme Center, NH the Clarks probably prevented over 800 tons of carbon from entering the atmosphere just from using wood for heat. Not many Americans could make that claim today.
The Clarks had a wood-fired cook stove that heated part of their house, all of their hot water (in a 40 gallon tank) and cooked all of their food. From the 1930s to the mid 1950s, two other wood stoves were used to heat the rest of the house. In 1954, someone in Connecticut was getting rid of their coal furnace in order to make the switch to gas, and Charlie and Mildred drove down there with their son, Wilbur, to pick it up. They brought it back and began using it as a wood furnace. For the next 30 years, that was the only source of heat for the house other than the wood cook stove. In 1985, when Charlie passed away, Mildred installed a back-up propane system but kept heating mainly with the wood furnace until 2006 when she passed away at age 87.
Like many American homes, the Clarks’ home wasn’t insulated until 1985, even though they lived up in the hills of New Hampshire where the snow banks were routinely five to 10 feet high for most of the winter. Homes in Hanover, 10 miles to the south, were probably emitting about 10 tons of carbon per year just for heating. Meanwhile, heating for Charlie and Mildred’s three-bedroom farmhouse was carbon neutral.
Wilbur worked at Nichols Hardware store, which specialized in wood stoves, as many hardware stores in New England did back then. He estimated that even in 1985, about 75 percent of the residents of the towns of Lyme and Lyme Center used wood as their main heating source (more and more were getting oil furnaces, but usually just as a back-up to their wood furnace or stove. Propane was sometimes added for hot water and cooking, but rarely for heat). Of that 75 percent, about 10 percent had their own woodlots and never bought wood. Many others bought whole logs, delivered on tractor-trailers, then cut and split it themselves. Others bought green split cords and a few bought seasoned, split cords. In the mid-80s, the price of a cord reached $100, to the consternation of most of the town.
Charlie and Mildred’s cook stove, a Sears Kenmore bought in 1945, is still in use in the house of one of their great, great grandchildren. The water jacket rusted out in the late 1990s so it’s not used for hot water anymore, but, otherwise, it is still going strong. One of the wood stoves in their house used from the 30s through the mid-50s, a Rural Andes, was inherited from their grandparents, and is now being used by the fourth generation, in Wilbur’s summer cottage in Enfield, NH, where evenings can be cool enough for a small fire.
Charlie and Mildred’s lives were very low carbon in other ways as well, because they had a family farm and were relatively self-sufficient. They came from a generation that was gradually ridding itself of wood heat, as people could afford coal, and then gas or oil. Of course, their choice to continue heating their house and water with wood was not at all motivated by global warming. Charlie hadn’t even heard of it in 1985 when he passed away, and Mildred continued using wood until just a few years before her death in 2006 out of habit, comfort and economics. The Clarks used wood because it was renewable- it regenerated itself all around them on their 150-acre farm for decades. Only in retrospect can we calculate the carbon emissions that they would have caused if they had been using coal and oil, like many in New England. The Clarks should be considered renewable energy heroes, just as the pioneers of wind and solar in the 1970s were.
1 Avoided carbon emissions by Mildred and Charlie were calculated using the assumption that they would have otherwise used coal heat from 1935-1955 and oil heat from 1955-2005, like many others in their region chose to do. According to the EIA, one ton of high-grade anthracite coal emits 2.84 tons of CO2 when it burns. An average New England home would burn 5.86 tons of coal each year, for total CO2 emissions of 16.64 tons per year for 20 years. Burning coal until 1955, they would have added 332.85 tons of CO2 to the atmosphere. An average New Hampshire home using fuel oil will burn 855 gallons each year, producing nearly 10 tons of CO2. Over 50 years, the Clarks would have emitted 478.45 tons of CO2 if they had used heating oil. By burning wood instead of “upgrading” to coal and oil, they prevented 811.3 tons of CO2 from contributing to climate change.