Wood-fired heaters create local jobs. Can they fight climate change, too?
By Gwendolyn Craig
During a February snowstorm in North Hudson, highway crews filled trucks with sand. Snowplows carved into the drifting banks of white. Summer seemed impossible.
Inside the garage it was toasty.
“You can tell it’s quite warm in here,” said Emmett Thompson, one of the highway department workers, as he walked around the 1,700 square-foot building.
Keeping the equipment thawed and workers cozy was an automated wood pellet boiler, a system that burns tiny pieces of wood to heat water and distribute it throughout the building. The water is stored in a large tank. The one inside North Hudson’s highway garage stands out like a yellow thumb. It is painted by local inmates to look like a minion, one of the characters from Universal Studios’ “Despicable Me” movies.
The boiler has a much more serious look—a sleek red box with a computer on its face. It is fed wood pellets from a 10-ton silo outside.
The system has provided a mixed experience for the town garage, which switched to mostly wood pellet heat around February 2018.
North Hudson isn’t the only one trying out this burgeoning energy system for which there is an ample fuel supply growing in and around the Adirondacks. The state’s offices in Ray Brook are partially heated with wood-based fuel and homes across the Adirondack Park are installing wood boiler systems.
It’s a tempting economic development move in a densely forested land. Those looking to reduce their carbon footprints to slow global warming may also look to wood. But whether these systems save people money and combat climate change is a complicated question.
“The answer nobody likes to hear from a scientist is, ‘It depends,’” said John Gunn, a professor in forest management at the University of New Hampshire.
It depends on how the wood is harvested, the efficiency of the system, what other energy sources are available, whether the system provides heat or electricity, and a number of other factors, studies show.
“All energy choices are bad choices, and each community needs to try and find out which choice is the least bad for their situation and their circumstances,” said Andrew Friedland, an environmental studies professor at Dartmouth College.
What are wood heat boilers?
The boilers are heating appliances that can burn wood pellets, chips or some other kind of fuel. Some are called biomass heating systems, because they take a variety of fibrous products, including wood and corn, while others are called wood pellet boilers, because they only take wood pellets.
Pellets, which look like something you might feed a hamster, are generally more efficient because in the process of making them, more water is sucked out.
Your traditional woodstove is out of favor with some environmentalists. The smoke is much dirtier and it’s more work to load and clean.
The Northern Forest Center, an organization focused on supporting local economies with healthy forests, is promoting the use of wood heat boilers “because of their efficiency,” said Leslie Karasin, its program manager for the Adirondacks.
The center does not advocate for wood boiler systems meant to provide electricity. That has been a hot topic nationally and internationally, as forests including some in the South are chopped down solely to fuel power plants, mostly in Europe. Dartmouth College has considered something similar to power its campus, drawing pushback.
Heating systems, however, especially for homes, are different.
The ash from the burned pellets gets collected into a pan that for home systems usually has to be emptied every two to three weeks.
Doug Haney, a Saranac Lake resident, built his home last March and installed a wood pellet boiler and propane heating system. The propane is on-demand for hot water, but the boiler heats the house.
It was an ideal switch for Haney and his wife, Kat, who were living in an older home with a woodstove. The stove left one room a sweltering 80 degrees, while bedrooms were closer to 50 or 60 degrees. Now hot water heat runs evenly through the house, they said.
Of course, building a new home makes it a little easier to plan for installing a wood boiler, but Karasin said older homes can make the switch.
“It’s not always as pretty as this,” Karasin said, pointing to the Haneys’ system, “but it can be super functional.”
Automated systems are even better, Karasin added. Delivery trucks pull up to a home and load pellets to a storage container, what looks something like an oil delivery. A vacuum system feeds the boiler with wood pellets as needed.
Karasin said the particulates emitted into the air are low, too. The systems must conform to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations. But again, it depends on the system and what filtration it may have. Generally, health experts point to natural gas being the cleanest energy source when comparing gas, oil, wood and coal.
Keeping it local
The Northern Forest Center and the Empire State Forest Products Association are promoting the wood boiler technology, too, because it tends to keep fuel dollars local.
“When somebody pays for an oil delivery or propane delivery, 80% of that money that they spend immediately leaves the local economy, just because so much of the final cost is just the raw product, and the raw product is not manufactured or produced locally in any way,” Karasin said. “Whereas with pellets, it really is supporting jobs and businesses in the local economy.”
John Bartow Jr., executive director of the Empire State Forest Products Association, said wood boilers are “an extremely viable energy resource for the North Country in particular, where you have lots of feedstock locally available.”
One of the biggest suppliers of wood pellets in the region is Curran Renewables out of Massena.
Pat Curran and his brothers are the owners and operators of the business. They also own Seaway Timber Harvesting. The two businesses are linked, where “one provides fiber to the other,” Curran said. In February and March, Seaway Timber Harvesting was cutting trees near Lyon Mountain in Clinton County.
Generally, the Currans harvest sawlogs first, which will be made into veneer. But mixed in with the high-grade wood is plenty of low-grade. Some of that includes tree tops and limbs. Some of that includes whole trees that aren’t up to furniture standards.
Curran said the lower-grade wood gets delivered to paper mills or to his wood pellet plant.
“We like to think of it as adding more dollars from the same tree,” said Bartow, about the leftovers used to make wood pellets.
When making pellets, Curran said crews will grind down the wood and dry it until it has about a 10% moisture content. The wood then gets pushed through the Massena-based pellet mill, where the wood loses another 5% of its moisture.
Nothing gets added to the pellets to keep their shape, Curran said. Sugars in the wood generally hold it together.
Curran Renewables can generate up to 100,000 tons of wood pellets annually, but Curran said whether he hits that depends on the weather and market.
Right now, the pellet market isn’t great.
Curran has been running his pellet plant for a little over a decade now, but his enthusiasm for it was waning in March, with a crashing stock market and a mild winter. It will take his company at least two more decades to pay off the debt for building the plant, he said.
“I did not anticipate a winter quite like this, and I also did not anticipate the fall of oil (prices) sharply caused by coronavirus, in my view,” Curran said. “I think we’re going to see some sharp layoffs in our business because of what I’m seeing.”
It is a tough business.
Generally pellets costs around $240 a ton. Haney’s storage tank holds just under 4 tons, which this winter lasted him from about September to January.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation and New York State Energy and Research Development Authority acknowledged that “low heating oil prices have significantly reduced consumer motivation to heat with wood. Clarkson University found the break-even price to heat with a wood pellet boiler is when the price of home heating oil is $3.22/gallon.”
Adirondack-region heating oil prices dipped below $3 in late-winter and early-spring, according to NYSERDA.
Wood boiler installation isn’t cheap, either. The Northern Forest Center estimates the average cost, including incidentals, is about $18,000. That’s compared to about $12,000 for an oil boiler.
At the North Hudson highway garage, Supervisor Stephanie DeZalia said the town hasn’t seen cost savings yet. The heating system had a few breakdowns, and with the parts manufactured in Austria, there were no quick fixes.
But the system is saving the highway department time, which DeZalia said is saving taxpayers’ money. Before, crews were logging, cutting and stacking wood to fuel a woodstove that heated the highway garage. Thompson said they were using about 100 cords per year.
The much larger $3 million facility heating the State Police barracks, DEC offices and Adirondack Park Agency offices in Ray Brook is also working out some kinks.
The system was designed to provide about 90% of the heat to the buildings, with the help of natural gas. On particularly cold days, a DEC spokesman said, it’s providing about 60% of the heat.
Still waiting for the heating system to make its full winter season run, the DEC said it is calculating the costs and benefits.
Haney has had better luck with his system, which hasn’t needed any repairs.
Through NYSERDA’s Renewable Heat New York program, started in 2014, the state has provided incentives for 3,164 pellet boilers and 37 cordwood boilers so far.
Renewable Heat New York is separate from the state’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions statewide by 85% below 1990 levels by 2050. The act, DEC and NYSERDA said, includes reducing “all sources of greenhouse gas emissions, including from biomass systems.”
The recently formed Climate Action Council, the agencies added, will identify how to reduce emissions in a “scoping plan.”
So it remains to be seen how wood boilers may work into the state’s climate legislation, but many advocates tout the technology as a carbon-neutral alternative.
Forests, like in the Adirondacks, are carbon sinks, capturing the greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere and storing it tightly within. If a tree dies, it decomposes, and some of that carbon returns to the atmosphere. Some of it goes into the ground. Some say burning the leftovers from a logging job is putting carbon into the atmosphere that would be headed there already.
Friedland and other scientists cautioned that the timeframe is different. Vegetation takes a long time to decompose, and burning it can put that carbon into the atmosphere much quicker.
With a United Nations report by the world’s leading scientists showing we have about a decade to reverse the course of global warming, putting carbon into the atmosphere at a faster pace will not help. But Friedland and Gunn point to large-scale heating systems and wood-powered electric plants as the real culprits for contributing to climate change.
“It’s a waste product,” Friedland said of wood pellets. “It’s not like you’re creating the demand to cut down forests for those pellets.” The best scenario is to burn branches and debris from trees cut to make furniture that will store much of the tree’s carbon long-term. “If you can obtain energy from them and rescue the amount of fossil fuel taken out of the ground and burned, that’s probably a good thing.”
Gunn conducted a study that showed wood pellets made from sawdust and waste material had the lowest greenhouse gas emissions profile, apart from an air-source heat pump, when stacked up against natural gas, propane, heating oil and coal.
It’s particularly problematic when mature forests—trees 100 years-old and older—are cut for wood pellets, said William Schlesinger, a scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. That’s because you have the carbon costs of harvesting the material and transporting it, in addition to putting a century worth of carbon collected into the atmosphere at once.
“Often forestry debris is in limited supply,” Schlesinger said, “and particularly if larger facilities are being conceived of that depend on it, then it’s easy to slop over (to) harvesting a whole tree.”
But in a place like the Adirondacks, where rural communities are more challenged with energy access and transportation of wood pellets is a smaller lift, the systems could be a good way to keep warm.
“It doesn’t make any sense to put a bunch of automated heat boilers on Long Island, where you don’t have a local resource,” Karasin said.
In the North Country, though, “It’s just a very accessible, available solution that can be implemented right away.”