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Bicycling in Rain

Why Wood Heat Should be Incentivized

C. Biomass is an Affordable Heating Source

Wood is the renewable fuel of choice for rural Americans, particularly low and middle income families. State and federal policies that incentivize purchasing new, clean-burning wood stoves help these families to affordably heat their homes with a low carbon fuel. Biomass stoves typically cost between $1,000 and $3,000, making them an affordable investment for most low and middle-income families. In Washington State however, households making over $20,000 are significantly more likely to own a stove than households making under $20,000.1 This likely reflects the fact that the initial stove purchase, while very cost effective, still requires an investment that the very lowest income households could have difficulty affording.

Biomass stoves are a significant source of heat and can easily displace hundreds of gallons of heating oil as well as this equivalence of natural gas or propane. At today’s prices, purchased cordwood is often comparable to natural gas and both cordwood and pellets are significantly less expensive than fuel oil, propane or electricity (Fig. 17). The 2009 Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey reported that total home heating expenditures for electricity, fuel oil, natural gas and other fuels averages $2,000 per year. 2 The advantage biomass has over these fuels in addition to affordability, is that wood is renewable and local. The money spent on home heating will remain in the local economy, and the money saved on home heating can circulate locally as well. 3

A household switching over to wood or pellet heat can reap significant rewards in yearly savings (Fig. 17). Cordwood price differs vastly depending on geographic location, tree type (hard or soft), size, dryness, split, etc. but the average price for a cord of wood is around $200. Depending on heating needs, most American households use 1-6 cords a year. However, unlike traditional fuels, cord wood can be harvested at very low cost on most state and federal lands (see Chapter 5, Section B: Fuel Incentives) or collected from urban and suburban waste wood that otherwise often ends up in landfills.

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Figure 17: Household fuel cost and use (Biomass Thermal Energy Council)

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Figure 18: Heating fuel costs (Popular Mechanics) 4

Table 1: Fuel replacement cost savings (As calculated by the Alliance for Green Heat based off of average yearly fuel costs sourced from Popular Mechanics)

Wood Helps Families Stay off of Public Assistance

Wood heat is a useful safety net for very low-income families as one of the most affordable heating sources. Counties with per-capita income below the federal poverty threshold have almost three times more wood heat users than counties above the federal poverty threshold. 5 Since counties with per-capita income falling below the federal poverty line are almost three times as likely to heat with wood, we can conclude that the financial benefits of wood heat are a significant benefit to low-income areas. Additionally a study on the wood use patterns of households in the Southeastern U.S. found that on average lower income households consume more fuelwood than higher income households. 6

Numerous reports document the "heat or eat" dilemma in America. "Forty percent [of low-income Americans] reported that they have had to choose between paying for food and utilities in the past year."7 Low-income households have lower food expenditures and worse nutritional outcomes than more affluent families during cold-weather periods. 8 Wood stoves help mitigate this problem in rural areas where families typically collect or harvest their own wood. Greater energy assistance funding for installing efficient EPA certified wood stoves could decrease energy and food insecurity.

Wood heat not only benefits the local economy, but the county and state in general by potentially allowing Low Income Heating Assistance Program (LIHEAP) eligible families to remain off assistance and helping the borderline LIHEAH eligible demographic save money and avoid the need for LIHEAP assistance. This frees up more funds for other cases and allows people to retain their independence, while saving money on heating.

1 Gunnells L. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: Wood Stoves, Fireplaces and Chronic Disease. Washington State Department of Health. October 2009. Pg 22
2 Cooper, M. Public Attitudes Toward Energy Efficiency and Appliance Efficiency Standards: Consumers see the Benefits and Support the Standards. Consumer Federation of America. March 2011. Pg. 3
3 Gulland J. The Argument in Favour of Wood Heating. The Fuelwood Project. February 2007. Pg 18
4 Ward L. Is Wood the Best Renewable Fuel for Heating? Popular Mechanics. January 2011. <> * Note this figure represents the ‘average’ 2400-square-foot house in the U.S. The amount of heat required in different parts of the country will vary greatly, as will the cost of the different fuels.
5 To measure the disparity in wood use between high and low-income communities, we examined a total of 196 counties in six states; Oregon, Maine, New Hampshire, Montana, West Virginia and Maryland. The states selected were chosen for their geographical spread, high percentage of forest land and high levels of residential wood heat use-five of the chosen states are in the top ten highest wood use states. The per capita income for each county was analyzed to determine if families below the Federal Poverty Line (FPL) of $22,050 (for a family of four, 2009-2010) were more likely to use wood heat than families above the FPL. When the two groups were compared, we found that counties with a per capita income below $22,050 were 2.8 times more likely to have wood heat users than other counties (P=.001). Counties with a per capita income below the FPL had an average of 10.7% wood heat use compared to 3.8% in higher income counties.
6 Christiansen E. et al. Residential Fuelwood Consumption in the Southeastern U.S. Biomass and Bioenergy Vol. 5. No. 6. 1993. Pg. 492
7 Feeding America, Public Opinion Poll Release. December 2008
8 Bhattacharya, J. et al. Heat or Eat? Cold-Weather Shocks and Nutrition in Poor American Families. American Journal of Public Health. Vol. 93. No. 7. July 2003. Pg 1153

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