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Wood-Burning Fireplace: Eco-OK or Not?
Stephen Morris served on the Real Goods Board of Directors for more than seven years and was instrumental in developing the Solar Living Sourcebook and the launch of the Solar Living Center. As an author, journalist and publishing consultant with expertise in renewable energy, organic gardening and sustainable living, Morris has written several books including The Book of Heat with Bill Busha and the staff of Vermont Castings — which has enjoyed widespread popularity as the definitive work on the practices and lifestyle associated with wood burning.
I’m totally confused. The subject is wood, a material I have used to heat my home for the past 15 years. I know it’s more work to burn wood, but I like the exercise. It makes more sense to burn calories splitting and hauling hardwood than running in front of a television set on a treadmill at the health spa. I enjoy the fresh air. I like the warmth. I like the flicker and glow of embers.
Unfortunately (and this is where I begin to get confused), there is another side to the wood-burning issue. Along comes evidence that the emissions from airtight stoves contain insidious carcinogens, and further indications that a home’s internal environment can be more adversely affected by burning wood than by passive cigarette smoke. So now I burn my wood in a “clean” stove. But, my environmentally active friends say that the only good smoke is no smoke, and that even my supposedly high-tech stove is smogging up their skies.
Sometimes, when I am stacking wood so that a summer’s worth of sunshine can make it a cleaner, hotter fuel, I think of those supertankers carrying immense cargos of black gold from the ancient forests of the Middle East. I think of the wells that Saddam Hussein set afire in Kuwait, and the noxious roar of the jet engines of the warplanes we used to ensure our country’s access to cheap oil.
My wood comes from hills that I can see. It’s delivered by a guy named Paul, who cuts it with his chainsaw, then loads it in his one-ton pickup. We talk about the weather, the conditions in the woods, and the burning characteristics of different species. We finish by bantering about whether he’s delivered a large cord, a medium, or a small. I can’t imagine having the same conversation with the man who delivers oil or propane.
On the positive side of the ledger comes the information that wood-burning, in combination with responsible reforestation, actually helps the environment by reversing the greenhouse effect. The oxidation of biomass, whether on the forest floor or in your stove, releases the same amount of carbon into the atmosphere. It makes more sense for wood to be heating my home than contributing to the brown skies over Yellowstone.
Theoretically, I should be able to go back to feeling good about wood, but life is never that simple.
This is obviously a simplistic analysis, but wood should be a simple subject. In the meantime, I have to keep warm, so I’m choosing to burn wood. I keep coming back to the fact that humans have been burning oil for more than 50 years — and wood for 5 million.