If you’re like many Vermonters — that is, a little over third of them — then you probably have some type of wood heating appliance in your home, even if it’s a woodstove that you use only some of the time. Or you might even be one of the 15% of homes in the state that use wood as your primary heat source. Either way, advocates of wood heat say that it’s an important part of the strategy to meet Vermont’s renewable energy goals, that the benefits from heating with wood are many, and that Vermont is a national leader when it comes to wood heat.

The reasons for heating with wood are several: For one, who doesn’t love sitting by a cozy fire, warm drink in hand, while blustery weather whirls around outside? Or if you’re not the romantic type, maybe you enjoy that you can cut your own firewood from your own land, or hand your heating fuel money to a neighbor who cuts firewood for you, and thereby use a local, cost-effective heating fuel in your home.

These are two of the reasons, combined with a failing old woodstove that needs replacing and a 26% federal tax credit on certain models, that I landed on the Chimney Sweep’s sales floor. At the stove shop, on Route 302 in Berlin, I found the new woodstove that will heat my home, and also learned that it won’t be here until February. It’s a story that is playing out around the state.

At the Stove Depot, in North Clarendon, shop owner Center Merrill says, “It may be out to the first of the year before we can get one.” He says stove manufacturers are experiencing problems with getting parts, as well as labor shortages, which together are causing a delay of as much as 40 to 50 days for stoves to arrive after they’re ordered. Since the store carries a number of brands, says Merrill, they do have some models available in stock now, although their installation schedule is also about 1½ months out, currently.

If shoppers are willing to wait for their stove, Merrill says the first step is to work with a sales person to determine the square footage of your home. Then, look for a stove that is the right size to heat your house. Once you find one you like, customers can expect to pay $4,500 to $5,500 for most models, he says, before any incentives or tax credits.

The investment, of both time and dollars, in wood heat appears to be worth it, according to charts and graphs presented by Emma Hanson, Vermont’s wood energy coordinator, in a presentation she shared with me by email, titled, “Are You Stoked?” I chuckled when I saw what she did there.

In her presentation, there are slides showing price increases over time of various heating fuels. When the fuels are compared on the basis of heat output, or as the cost in dollars per million Btu produced, which is shop talk for a unit of heat, electricity is the most expensive heating fuel, followed by propane and number 2 heating oil, in that order. Over the past 20 years, the cost of oil and propane have also fluctuated wildly, albeit the overall trend is up. And then, down at the bottom of the graph, holding fairly steady lines over time, are the cheapest heating fuels, like heat pumps, natural gas and wood.

Wood fuel, says Andrew Perchlik, with the Vermont Clean Energy Development Fund, ticks off a few boxes: It displaces fossil fuels, supports the local economy and is a low-cost option for Vermonters, plus it helps meet the state’s renewable energy goals. The Comprehensive Energy Plan calls for 90% of the energy used in Vermont to come from renewable sources by 2050; specifically, it calls for 35% of the energy used for heating to come from wood by 2030.

“In general, we want to get rid of our fossil fuels for our energy needs,” says Perchlik, “in ways that are cost-effective and take advantage of a number of benefits.”

Currently, 23 percent of the energy that goes to heating buildings in Vermont comes from wood, so there is some work to do in the coming years, like installing thousands more wood heating appliances, such as pellet stoves and furnaces and high efficiency wood stoves. Vermont is also already a leader in using wood heat in larger buildings, like schools and town offices; in fact, one in three Vermont kids attend a wood-heated school. So included in the strategy to attain these renewable energy goals is installing more of these large wood-heating systems too. Reaching that goal, says Hanson, would displace 40 million gallons of fossil fuels and save Vermonters a combined $1.2 million annually.

In the case of wood, advocates say that what is good for your wallet is also good for the environment. Experts point out that sourcing wood fuel locally can help support the forest products economy, which although not intuitive, helps keep forests forested. And, they argue, when wood fuel is harvested sustainably, no new carbon is added to the atmosphere.

An important part of this, says Hanson, is the term, “high efficiency.” Wood heating appliances on the market today, which Hanson and others are calling “advanced wood energy” or “modern wood energy,” meet fairly stringent standards for efficiency, meaning they use less wood to produce the same amount of heat, and they produce less air pollution. Of particular concern is particulate matter, which are fine particles released into the air from burning wood. These modern, high-efficient stoves are designed to keep this to a minimum.

“These higher efficiency stoves,” says Perchlik, “mean improved air quality, burning less wood and staying warmer, all of which mean people are more likely to actually use it.”

These are the reasons that groups like CEDF and Efficiency Vermont have, in the past, offered incentives and swap-out programs to help Vermonters replace old, inefficient wood stoves with new, more efficient models. While these programs are currently stalled, Perchlik says new incentives are likely coming.

Wood, says Adam Sherman with Vermont Energy Investment Corp., has long been the backbone of Vermont’s renewable energy history. And, he says, in the last five years, the technology has only gotten better as manufacturers redesigned their products to meet these new, more stringent air quality standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Sherman points out that Vermont uses a staggering amount of number 2 heating oil, to the tune of 90 million gallons per year, and there is no one “silver bullet” strategy to replace that with renewable energy overnight. A number of strategies are needed, like weatherization, which he says should be the first step, to help buildings use less energy in the first place. Electrifying our energy use is another important strategy, because it makes it possible for more people to cost-effectively access sources of renewable energy. But neither of these strategies, nor heat humps or solar thermal projects will get us fully to our goals, he points out, and wood is able to make up the difference.

Says Sherman: “As we all think about and take action to lower our carbon footprint, wood is a critical piece.”

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