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The Case for Crackling Logs

If I burn wood for heat, will I go to hell?

James Glave 19 Dec

James Glave is a Bowen Island-based writer and consultant whose work focuses on solutions and strategies to address global challenges such as climate change and peak oil. His forthcoming first book, Eco-Shed (Greystone, Fall 2008), chronicles the sustainably designed writing studio he has spent the past year building in his front yard.

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Festivity up in smoke?

Until recently, I had a fairly serious nocturnal-emissions problem.

It was back when my wife Elle and I lived in Santa Fe. The winters at 7,000 feet were cold, and so, like thousands of other New Mexicans, we had a kiva -- a plastered fireplace -- built into the corner of our den. A few pieces of piñon pine, cracking and popping on the grate, filled our home with romance and authentic southwestern atmosphere. We had the fire going just about every evening between October and March; it was the envy of visitors and a beloved source of cheer.

It was also, potentially, a source of asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema.

That's because though I didn't know it at the time, the wood smoke our kiva belched into the night sky -- and sometimes, when I neglected to open the damper in a timely manner, our home -- was installing itself in the tiniest crevices of my lungs and those of my wife and our two toddlers.

The culprit? A group of airborne particulates known as PM2.5, which are found in wood smoke in quantity.

Diesel-engine soot tends to get all the attention these days, but as far as "fine particulates" go, fireplaces like my old kiva are just as bad for people, if not worse. That's because open wood burning makes a lot of smoke, and by extension a lot of PM2.5 -- technically, particles smaller than 2.5 microns. Roughly 60 of these little buggers would fit side-by-side across the width of a human hair, which is how they likely found their way into the tiniest nooks and crannies of our respiratory system for all those years.

The fire, it turns out, is not "so delightful." Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas, Johnny. Here's your inhaler!

Are Duraflames 'green'?

Unfortunately, the cheer of a roaring fireplace, the pull of festive tradition, is stronger than ever in the Lower Mainland. Increasing numbers of us are evidently lighting up in the winter months.

According to preliminary data from Metro Vancouver's forthcoming 2005 "airshed" emissions inventory, estimated PM2.5 emissions from wood heating -- which covers fireplaces, wood stoves, and other "solid fuel" appliances -- rose 23 per cent in the Lower Fraser Valley region between 2000 and 2005.

Firewood isn't so easily available in the city, but there's nothing to stop anyone from torching a Duraflame -- which has recently fashioned itself as a "green" product by removing petroleum-based waxes -- or setting alight a bundle of split logs picked up at the Chevron station. And indeed, in many areas of Metro Vancouver, many of us do. A recent study in the journal Environment Science and Technology revealed high levels of nighttime PM2.5 in Richmond, Surrey, and Vancouver's enviro-boomer stronghold, Kitsilano.

Flames of atonement

This is the part of the story where I atone for my sins and explain how I've cleaned up my act and cut with the pyromania. And indeed, I have started behaving more responsibly. My embarrassing emissions problem is behind me.

But I still burn wood in my home, and will probably do so forever. In fact, I just put another slab of maple on the coals a few minutes ago.

When we moved from Santa Fe to Bowen Island a couple years back, we bought a Rais Pina, a high-efficiency "air tight" wood stove that burns fuel so hot and so efficiently that it incinerates almost all of its own combustion gases. And by taking care to burn only dry, seasoned wood split into small sections, our stove pipe emits heat, but no smoke -- except for a few puffs at startup.

There's no shortage of fuel on our island -- I cut and split a winter's worth each spring from trees already felled by either developers or wind, and stack it to dry for six months. If you don't count the chainsaw and borrowed pickup truck -- both necessary evils -- the whole process is pretty much fossil-free.

And so is the heat. So far this winter, we have not yet turned on the six electric baseboard heaters on the main floor of our home, saving money, kilowatts, and -- thanks to the coal-fired juice Hydro imports from Alberta and Washington state -- a few burps of greenhouse gas.

Then there's that unbeatable security. Mother Gaia has been very forgiving so far this winter, but last year Bowen went without Hydro on roughly a dozen occasions. The December 2006 storm that leveled Stanley Park kept parts of my community in the dark for three full days. We did just fine.

Political heat

But mention to anyone over yonder that we heat with wood, and we might as well paint ourselves as wheezing hicks.

"Well, you're the devil incarnate, aren't you?" cracked Bill Morrell, Metro Vancouver's media relations man, when I mentioned my stove.

He was joking, of course, but there's a spark of truth behind the sarcasm. Less than a year ago, angry Southeast False Creek residents banded together to kill a proposed biomass district heating plant that would have incinerated wood pellets made from B.C. mill waste. With advanced industrial controls, the facility would have generated carbon-neutral heat and lessened strain on the grid, while emitting next-to-nothing in the way of smoke and PM2.5.

But residents -- who'd likely lived next-door to one too many choking fireplace chimneys in their time -- assumed they were signing up for a dark satanic mill in their backyard. A few alarming headlines later, and the project was dead.

Should Vancouverites all go out and buy airtight wood stoves to help meet their Team Power Smart commitments? Probably not. The logistics of obtaining fuel on a house-by-house basis in an urban setting makes the idea a non-starter. My wood stove makes sense here on woodsy Bowen, but over on the mainland, perhaps not.

But if the technology and design of my Rais Pina were scaled up to the neighborhood level -- and combined with state-of-the-art industrial controls -- biomass would in fact make a lot of sense for a growing city with a ravenous appetite for energy. A whole string of such mini-plants would heat hot water before circulating it, via loops of pipe, to nearby homes and businesses. We'd have cheap, reliable -- and largely carbon-free -- warmth, for decades. There'd be no choking smoke, and an absolute bare minimum of PM2.5, if any.

Instead, our forestry sector incinerates its sawdust and mill waste by the tonne in beehive burners -- basically, industrial-scale fireplaces without the festive charm. Even today, years after they were identified as public-health hazards, and after the premier pledged to shut them all down, the burners still envelope "heartland" towns like Merritt in a choking soup of PM2.5 every day of the year.

Healthy disagreement

I'm not arguing that all wood stoves out there are as efficient as mine. To be sure, across the province thousands of old Franklin-style models spew at least as much PM2.5 as my Kiva did back in Santa Fe. And since new stoves are expensive, the turnover will be slow.

Last month, Victoria said it will spend $1 million over the next three years to help residents swap out smoky stoves for updated, clean-burning models. In fact, thanks to a 1994 provincial law -- the only such legislation in Canada -- in B.C., you can't buy any other kind.

We have countless tonnes of waste wood rotting on the ground across this province. If we can turn it into urban heat without smoking out the neighbors -- and to be clear, we can -- then we should be putting plans in place to do so. We are fast-outstripping our electrical-generation electricity in B.C. Meanwhile, the tar sands' unquenchable appetite for natural gas will begin to place our finite supply of that fossil-fuel under pressure.

Wood just makes sense. In the eyes of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it's carbon-neutral fuel. But it's going to take us a while to figure this out. In the eyes of many, biomass -- whether a slab of seasoned maple in an efficient Scandinavian or B.C.-designed appliance, or pellets made from sawdust in a state-of-the-art incinerator -- remains the devil incarnate.

"If people have another home-heating choice, they should use it," says Scott McDonald, the executive director of the B.C. Lung Association. "Wood is next to coal in terms of desirability."

I'm not sure Gaia would agree.

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