March 18, 2010

Burned by high oil prices,


— By

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John Patriquin/Staff Photographer;Thursday., January,17,2008. Christine Studdiford loads wood in her wood stove that helps heat her farmhouse in Pownal.

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John Patriquin/Staff Photographer;Thursday., January,17,2008. Christine Studdiford uses this wood stove to heat her farmhouse in Pownal.

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Staff Writer

The warm glow of a wood fire has rarely felt so good.

With heating oil prices at near-record highs and fossil fuels taking most of the blame for global warming, more Mainers are breaking their addiction to oil heat and rediscovering the warmth of wood.

Burning wood carries its own environmental risks, including indoor and outdoor air pollution. But experts say it can be a clean alternative, and a less expensive one, if people have the right equipment and use it properly.

Christine Studdiford said she and her husband installed the wood stove in their farmhouse in Pownal last spring after watching ''dollar signs go out the windows'' whenever the oil furnace went on.

''We have a big old drafty house and we couldn't afford to keep turning the heat up,'' Studdiford said.

Now, the oil furnace rarely comes on and the wood stove keeps the house warm all the time.

''It keeps it very cozy,'' she said. ''It just feels good.''

Dealers in southern Maine say the demand has been steady this winter for wood stoves and fireplace inserts. It's the strongest January for stove sales in several years, said Sebastian Milazzo, sales associate at Finest Hearth and Home in Yarmouth.

The biggest reason for an apparent shift to wood is the cost of oil. The average statewide cash price for heating oil in Maine is $3.34 a gallon, over $1 more than a year ago.

Even Gov. John Baldacci, in his State of the State address last week, embraced wood as a way to stop sending billions of dollars out of the state to pay for oil.

''We must move forward aggressively to heat our homes with resources we have or can make right here,'' he said.

Baldacci announced a wood-to-energy initiative that ''will use our forests and natural resources to relieve consumption of nonrenewable oil.''

About 80 percent of the state relies on oil heat, while wood heats an estimated 10 percent of the state's homes, said John Kerry, director of Maine's Office of Energy Independence and Security.

That's only about half the percentage of homes that were heated by wood 20 to 30 years ago, the last time high oil prices fueled a shift to wood.

But, Kerry said, the number is clearly rising again. ''People are saying they're backing up their oil systems with wood stoves to the degree they can.''

Kerry said he expects that to continue, because of oil prices and the new technologies -- such as wood pellet-burning stoves -- that make wood heat more convenient and efficient.

And that's a good thing, he said. ''I think it's a very positive thing to have a diversity of sources of energy.''

But wood has its downsides.

In November, the state began regulating outdoor wood boilers, free-standing furnaces that have been blamed for smoking neighbors right out of their homes under certain conditions. The new rules set standards that are intended to prevent future problems and encourage the development of cleaner, more efficient outdoor boilers.

Wood smoke contains fine particulates -- soot -- as well as smaller amounts of mercury, dioxin and other pollutants. The particulates can pollute indoor air and contribute to localized outdoor air pollution, when smoke is trapped in river valleys and low-lying areas.

Wood burning was cited as a factor in an air pollution alert in Maine last week, although the problem was caused primarily by pollution drifting into the state from urban and industrial areas to the south and west.

Despite the risks, environmental and public health advocates are supportive of the shift.

One reason is that wood does not contribute to global warming the way oil and coal do.

Burning wood does release carbon dioxide -- a gas that traps heat in the atmosphere. But the carbon in trees is part of the natural cycle and is, in theory, taken up by new trees. Burning fossil fuels, on the other hand, releases carbon that has been buried deep in the earth.

The potential effect on indoor air quality is one reason wood may not be for everybody.

''For some people that have lung disease, it is generally better for them not to use wood heat,'' said Ed Miller, executive director of the American Lung Association of Maine.

But the association is not anti-wood, especially given the choices, Miller said.

''It's not good for your health to be cold, and it's not good for your health to have to spend so much on fuel oil you can't afford your medicine,'' he said.

How a stove is used has a big effect on how much it pollutes, indoors or out.

As long as modern, efficient stoves are used correctly -- with seasoned, dry wood and small, hot fires -- wood heat shouldn't create problems for healthy people, Miller said.

''If you are going to burn wood, you need to educate yourself and burn it responsibly,'' he said.

Jim Brooks, head of the air bureau of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, said Maine's air won't necessarily get dirtier as more people turn to wood heat.

''The good news on the wood stove front is that they're much cleaner, and as the older stoves get replaced, they're replaced with very efficient wood heaters,'' Brooks said.

Maine's air meets federal standards for particle pollution, Brooks said. ''I don't predict any major changes in that.''

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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Additional Photos

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John Patriquin/Staff Photographer;Thursday., January,17,2008. This half empty woodshed was spotted in Yarmouth.

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John Patriquin/Staff Photographer;Thursday., January,17,2008. This smoking chimney was spotted in North Yarmouth.


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