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New England cranks up its wood-burning stoves

Jack Rodolico Nov 1, 2013
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In West Lebanon, New Hampshire, the Woodstock Soapstone Company builds wood-burning stoves. A woodstove is essentially a firebox with a chimney. Installed in a living room, it can heat a home all winter. Company president Tom Morrisey is excited to show off the company’s newest creation—a stove with three-foot long, stainless steel antlers sticking out of the sides.

“When people look at the moose, they laugh,” says Morrisey. “And then they say, ‘Are you really gonna do this?’”

Woodstock makes most of its stoves from cast iron and slabs of soapstone. But by building this one from stainless steel, it will cost almost half as much as the company’s other models. The antlers are interchangeable with any design the customer wants.

“If you’re a member of the 99 percent,” says Morrisey, “you should be able to buy something that’s not just a black box.”

Woodstove sales are up all over the country. But they sell best among frugal Yankees, who are disproportionately reliant on heating oil. New England and New York consume 86 percent of the nation’s number two heating oil. Wood is cheaper than oil, and wood-burning technologies have become highly efficient.

Hartford High School in White River Junction, Vermont gets most of its heat from burning wood chips. The furnace automatically feeds itself chips—about 30 tons per week—and a thermostat sets the temperature for the entire building. Byron Baribou, facilities director for the school district, says wood has become almost as reliable as oil.

“When we first started back in the mid-90s,” Baribou says, “we dealt with the individual sawmills. If the mill closed down for Christmas, we couldn’t get chips.”

By burning chips all winter long, the school cuts its heating bill in half.

Technology isn’t just improving for big, automated systems. Woodstock Soapstone’s “moose stove” will soon be the most efficient, EPA-certified cordwood stove on the market.

“Older stoves were basically six-sided boxes that you put wood in,” says company president Morrisey. Now, he says, secondary combustion chambers and catalytic converters have made woodstoves as efficient as oil furnaces.

These jumps in efficiency are only possible because there’s so much wood in the Northeast. University of Maine forestry professor Rob Lilieholm says there is more forest here today than at any point in the last 200 years.

“We see this huge return of the forest, which is really in a lot of ways unique in human history because we also saw a big increase in population.”

If you heat with wood in the Northeast, 80 cents on the dollar stay in the region, says Adam Sherman, a consultant with Biomass Energy Resource Center in Vermont. He points to Vermont’s capital as an example of how the region can grow sustainably.

“The city of Montpelier is laying a grid of hot water delivery systems to the downtown, tying off of a wood chip heating plant. That’s a very innovative project that we’ll see more of.”

Right now, the Northeast only gets four percent of its heat from wood. But an industry study say that share could increase to almost 20 percent if projects like the one in Montpelier catch on.  

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