Wood pellet heating: Theory and practice.

Scott Jackson2 Comments

Did you know that approximately 80 per cent of your home energy use is for heating and hot water? (Source: Natural Resources Canada) As homeowners in Northern Ontario how can we reduce this energy cost?

Wood pellets are an economical fuel choice to replace electricity, fuel oil and propane to provide heat and domestic hot water. Many homeowners are already using manually fed wood pellet stoves to offset their heating costs. High efficiency automated hydronic heating systems (boilers) are now available to provide primary heat in small residences, businesses and large institutional buildings. Heating with pellet has tremendous potential for remote, rural and off-grid communities and is economically beneficial to areas that do not have access to natural gas.

Wood pellets are produced from compacted sawdust from sawmills and under utilized tree species. The sawdust is compacted under very high pressure, melting the natural glue (lignin) within, forming a pellet. The wood pellet is all natural with no additives!

High quality pellets have a low moisture content and very low dust and ash content. Highest quality pellets will have a CSA/ISO A1 certification.

Wood pellets are economical to transport over long distance, fairly easy to store, and work well with automated feed systems. Further, the wood pellet manufacturing sector supports good sustainable forest management practices by using under-utilized and under-valued tree species such as birch, aspen and the tops and limbs of harvested timber. This can contribute to the forest industry, retaining local jobs.

“Wood pellets provide a great way to combine enhanced forest utilization with good paying jobs, adding to the social, economic and environmental balance that forest managers strive for,” affirms Roger Barber from Resolute Forest Products.

Environmental benefits includes very low emissions, with virtually no odour or “smoke.” Increasingly, they are recognized as one of the most eco-friendly fuels for both residential and industrial use. Further, the wood pellet boilers today are extremely advanced, with low maintenance and computer-controlled combustion, operating up to 95 per cent efficiency.

Pellet stoves are becoming a popular home appliance. “I heat my basement with a pellet stove,” says Mat Leitch, a rural home owner. “It is efficient, produces cozy heat, easy to use and keeps clean. The pellets are inexpensive by the bag and will be less expensive when bulk deliveries are available. I would recommend a pellet stove to anyone for home, cottage or business heating.”

From a socio-economic perspective, wood pellets can drastically reduce costs for heating while providing health benefits from reduced emissions.

Canada has around 40 pellet plants with an annual production capacity of three million tonnes. According to the Wood Pellet Association of Canada, almost 1.2 million tonnes of pellets were exported to Europe and Asia in 2011.

The Canadian general market outlook is positive, but there is strong reliance on the international pellet market for export. The reason for this is a lack of domestic demand for Canadian wood pellets. The market at home is mainly restricted to small industrial users and homeowners buying bags of pellets from local stores.

Ontario’s new Climate Change Action Plan, unfortunately, has minimal inclusion of biomass as a resource. But Ontario is in an advantageous position with strategic pellet production locations to service the domestic market. Wood pellet manufacturing mills in Wawa, Atikokan, Thunder Bay, New Liskeard, Hearst, St. Mary’s, and Wellesley would be able to meet future demand but bulk wood pellet delivery infrastructure needs to be put in place.

It’s the “chicken and egg” scenario — who is going to be first? Creation of centralized storage and bulk delivery infrastructure in potential distribution areas is essential. And, pellet heating systems and fuel delivery to a homeowner should become as simple as it is for heating with oil or gas.

Incentives and subsidies are a way forward. There are residential energy incentives, but none yet for conversion to pellets. Ontario has feed-in-tariffs for small scale renewable electricity, but no programs for renewable heat.

An example that could be followed is the Ontario’s Home Energy Savings Program for Natural Gas Heating Appliances. The new program to replace old wood stoves with new high-efficiency wood stoves is a start, but a program to convert to pellet stoves and pellet/wood chip boilers would be a tremendous opportunity for green energy.

Public education is critical to drive the demand for wood pellet heating. Promoting the use of pellets, the boiler systems, and the environmental benefits at local home and garden shows could prove effective. Model homes and government buildings converted from conventional fuel to wood pellet heating could be planned as examples.

The socio-economic, environmental and heating advantages of wood pellets suggests that it is a desirable renewable energy source and could have a robust and vibrant domestic market in the future. It is a good component of a low-carbon lifestyle to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, however, we still have challenges to overcome.