With energy prices soaring, some see wood heat as a chance to ‘buy local’

By: - January 4, 2023 6:30 am

Solar panels are installed at Spring Ledge Farm in New London as part of a transition to renewable energy, including wood heat. (Courtesy)

In the 30 years Greg Berger has been farming, he’s seen the slow creep of climate change, as the frost that used to come in September now arrives in October. Rains have grown stronger and more erratic. Once infrequent, drought has become a persistent challenge on his New London farm.

But climate change isn’t the only reason he decided to retire the three oil boilers he uses to heat his hoop greenhouses at Spring Ledge Farm and switch to wood heat. There was also the volatility of fossil fuel prices, the money to be saved by switching, and the opportunity to use a local fuel for heat.

“We’re trying to get our customers to buy local produce, buy local plants. So it makes sense if I’m buying a pretty substantial resource, I’d want it to be local and certainly regional,” he said.

Soaring energy costs have made wood heat an even more attractive proposition. The cost of heating with wood can be cheaper and less volatile, but wood heat experts say it can be an uphill battle to convince people to switch to a less mainstream fuel. Rebates and tax credits are available that can make the equation more favorable.

“We have so much of this as a resource, but for some reason – and I don’t understand why – it hasn’t caught on the way solar has caught on or energy efficiency,” said Andy Duncan, who runs the New Hampshire Rural Renewables program. The program provides technical assistance to rural small businesses and agricultural producers in the state for free.

“It’s not seen as mainstream and it’s also seen as needing more maintenance,” Duncan said. “And I think maybe there’s some concern about what if my pellet boiler has a problem: Can someone fix it?”

Only around 6 percent of residents heat with wood, according to the New Hampshire Department of Energy – a number that’s been static for at least 16 years. Heating oil is much more common, used by 42 percent of households, with New Hampshire ranking second among states using the most heating oil per capita, according to the department. 

Cost

The cost of installing wood stoves or boilers can be steep. Berger, who estimated that the new wood chip boiler for the farm will cost around $189,000, called it dramatic – nearly four times the cost of just replacing the oil boilers he’s currently using. Installing a new system is expensive, in part, because, in Berger’s case, it includes plumbing and building a new garage to house the boiler.

Like any conscientious business owner, Berger set about creating a spreadsheet to weigh the costs and benefits. He believes that, given today’s cost of oil, the investment will pay itself back in two to three years. “If the price of oil goes up that makes this more attractive for sure,” he said.

When he first started planning the project, around a year and a half ago, fuel prices were lower, and it would’ve taken longer to break even, around four to five years. At that point, the war in Ukraine hadn’t broken out yet, but now Berger’s glad to know he will be shielded from the future volatility of the global market.

“I feel like it was fortuitous that I started working on it when I did,” he said. “Hopefully those prices stabilize, but it reinforces that this was the right thing to do for several reasons, both economic and sustainability.”

Wood chips can be produced locally, and their price has historically been relatively consistent. Berger needs the heat to keep his hoop greenhouses warm during the winter, where he grows ornamental plants and produce. At this time of the year, he keeps the greenhouses between 35 and 38 degrees, so they act as a refrigerator for the lettuce or spinach growing there. While some crops can grow at 45 degrees, others need it to be as warm as 65.

Berger typically starts heating the hoop houses – which measure 100 feet long by 25 feet wide – with oil in mid-February when he starts seedlings for the next year. This year, he hopes the wood chip boiler will be in place by the time his heating season begins.

Grants and rebates will cover around half the cost of the project, Berger said.

Climate concerns

While there are cost and stability reasons for switching to wood, there are also some drawbacks. Wood heat hasn’t received the same warm endorsement from environmental groups as have solar and wind power. A Dartmouth College proposal to switch to wood heat was halted, given controversy over the environmental benefit of making the switch and concern about traffic from trucks transporting the fuel.

Duncan said the problems with wood heat depend a lot on the kind of stove or boiler that’s used. Some wood-burning units can put out more particulates and pollution than natural gas, he said. And they emit a different type of air pollution than oil. On the flip side, there are highly efficient pellet boilers that don’t produce as much air pollution, according to Duncan.

“In a larger community, if everybody had wood-burning devices there would probably be an air pollution issue,” Duncan said.

Residential tax credits are available, but only for stoves approved by the EPA that have lower emissions. The tax credit is set at 26 percent of the cost of unit and installation, and it will go up to 30 percent next year.

Duncan and those in the forestry industry have argued there are environmental benefits to using wood heat, like promoting sustainable forest management. It creates a market for low-grade wood and an incentive for taking that wood out of the forest to make space for healthy trees to grow in its place.

“We’re losing 60 acres of forest per day in the Northeast, mostly to development and agriculture,” said Scott Nichols during a webinar to help small businesses switch to wood heat. Nichols owns a company called Tarm Biomass that sells wood fuel products.

He said emissions from commercial wood boilers are lower than most residential wood stoves. Tars are burned off, reducing how toxic emissions are. “There are some bad apples out there still building and selling low-tech commercial boilers,” he warned. He advised would-be buyers to request emission data, especially for boilers that are small enough not to be regulated by the state.

If people can make money off the forest, Nichols argues, that will protect the forest from the threat of being turned into a development or used for agriculture. In other words, it will provide a financial incentive for the forest to continue being a forest where trees grow and are cut down.

A renewable transformation

At Berger’s New London farm, wood heat was one part of a bigger transformation to use renewable energy. He’s also in the process of installing solar panels that will provide enough energy to power the farm, in hopes of becoming carbon neutral.

He expects the arrays to be installed and plugged into the grid soon. That project cost around $289,000 – and Berger said he was able to use some fairly small state rebates, plus a REAP grant from the USDA, and a federal tax credit that covers around 30 percent of the cost. That will help significantly reduce the upfront cost, he said, although he would’ve considered doing the projects even without them.

He hopes the farm can show others what’s possible. “If there’s a problem out there – even if it’s a huge one like climate change – it does come down to what individuals can do,” he said. “If you’re worried about it and there’s even a little bit you can do about it, you should do it.”

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee reported on energy and environment for New Hampshire Bulletin. She also previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.

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