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Wood pellets outperform fossil fuels in reducing greenhouse gases in northeastern US – new research finds

In the United States (US), an estimated 42 percent of all energy consumed is for home heating, most of which is derived from fossil fuels. Using wood pellets for home heating fuel in the northern forest region reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by more than half over fossil fuels including natural gas, according to new research from the NH Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

New York and five New England states comprise 88 percent of the entire United States consumption of home heating oil. Though natural gas is used widely for heat throughout the northeastern United States, the northern states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and the northern portion of New York still rely on home heating oil as a heat source with 62 percent, 45 percent, 43 percent, and 50 percent of homes, respectively.

According to new research conducted by John Gunn, research assistant professor of forest management and researcher with the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, and colleagues with the Spatial Informatics Group – Natural Assets Laboratory in Pleasanton, California using wood pellets for home heating fuel in the northeastern region reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by more than half over fossil fuels including natural gas.

Wood pellet heat is a new and growing heating alternative in the United States and has been proposed as a climate-beneficial energy source to replace fossil fuels. However, little work has been done to assess this claim. The opportunity for switching to wood pellet heat is particularly great for the Northern Forest region of northern Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York, which is home to more than two million people who live in rural communities, larger towns, and small cities surrounded by the largest intact forest in the eastern United States, the researchers said.

Currently, the use of wood for heat is variable throughout the region, ranging from 17 percent of homes in Vermont to 8 percent in New Hampshire and northern New York. In their research paper “Greenhouse gas emissions of local wood pellet heat from northeastern U.S. forests” published in journal Energy, Gunn and his collaborators found that:

  • Pellets from sawmill residues showed the strongest greenhouse gas emission benefits compared to fossil fuel and propane. Wood pellet fuel reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 54 percent versus home heating oil, and 59 percent versus natural gas;
  • Making pellets from up to 75 percent pulpwood and 25 percent sawmill residues produced benefits;
  • Shifting the existing harvest of pulpwood volume to pellets is beneficial to the climate;
  • Market scenarios decreasing or increasing harvest levels greatly affected results.

While the global concern about greenhouse gas emissions and climate change may be daunting, it is important to understand that as individuals we can make decisions that do scale up to have a beneficial impact to the atmosphere. This work shows that even choices about heating our homes and businesses make a difference, Gunn said.

The material is based upon work supported by the NH Agricultural Experiment Station, through joint funding of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the state of New Hampshire. The work also was supported by Northern Forest Center, USDA Rural Development, and Spatial Informatics Group, LLC.

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