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Transforming Wood Heat in America


Summary: Wood is used by 2.8 million American homes as a primary heating fuel and 8.8 million homes as a secondary heating fuel, comprising about 10% of US households. Wood heat provides 80% of all residential renewable energy- solar provides 15% and geothermal 5% (EIA). Between 2000 and 2009, wood heat use increased in 37 states.

Around two thirds of wood for heating is self harvested and wood or pellets can be purchased for much less than the cost of electric, oil or propane heat. Unlike other uses of biomass, such as electricity and liquid fuel that only utilizes 25%-50% of the energy contained in the fuel, biomass used for heat can capture up to 90% of the energy in the wood.

The wood heat industry is a domestic industry composed of many sectors, and is a significant source of US jobs. The hearth industry alone is valued at roughly five billion dollars a year, and the Department of Energy calculates that the equivalent of 23 million cords of firewood is used for residential heating purposes annually and residential wood heating expenditures are almost $1.5 billion per year.

The advances in reducing emissions from biomass stoves and furnaces in the US have been largely the result of engineering innovation in the private sector with virtually no government support for research and development. Although the Department of Energy funds research and development for other renewables, as well as ethanol production from biomass, investment in the biomass heating sector is notably absent.

Residential wood heat is responsible for reducing far more fossil fuel use than residential solar, geothermal and wind. A wood or pellet stove, purchased and installed for $2,000 to $4,000, can replace enough fossil fuels to displace 2-4 tons of carbon a year, the same as a typical residential solar PV system which can cost 10 times as much. State and Federal renewable energy programs have often overlooked the vast potential of this residential energy source, but the advent of much cleaner pellet and wood technologies is causing many program developers to take a second look.

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