Wood-Fueled Schools

BRISTOL, VERMONT — On a hot June day in Vermont, I poke my head into the gaping mouth of a twelve-foot-tall combustion chamber and watch as the floodlight shines inward, giving the belly of this fuel-hungry beast a sweltering ambiance. It takes eight hundred tons of fuel wood to feed the furnace that heats this high school through one October-to-May season. Over thirty public schools in this state alone have converted their heating systems from fossil fuel to wood fuel, which they burn in the form of matchbook-sized wood chips.

“Biofuel” has become something of a buzzword these days. While talk of corn-based biofuel populates the Midwest, many people in the Northeast are returning to the forests, and for good reasons: wood is less expensive than oil, puts less CO2 into the atmosphere, and can be grown renewably right here in our own backyard. But there is some concern about what this increasing demand for fuel wood will mean for the forests of the Northeast.

David Brynn, forestry faculty member at the University of Vermont and director of Vermont Family Forests, a small nonprofit located in the town of Bristol, has been mulling over these concerns for years. “Before anything,” David explains, “we have to dramatically reduce our fuel use by being more energy efficient and conservative, so that we don’t take more trees out of the forest than we have to. Then, we need to figure out how to sustainably produce fuel wood from local forests so that it is equitably accessible for all who need it.”

Weaving these ideas together, David has been working with a crew of forest professionals, students, and teachers to create the Vermont Eco-Wood Energy Project, a model for supplying and utilizing fuel wood based on four strategies: sustainable production, efficient use, local sourcing, and fair access. “The Vermont Eco-Wood Energy Project aims to cultivate workable systems for meeting our fuel wood needs while supporting the health of our forests, rather than degrading them,” David tells me, as we walk through a forest stand where students have been inventorying and harvesting trees. He points out signs of a healthy working forest — no-cut buffers around a small stream, little sign of residual stand damage, minimal soil compaction, gently sloping skid trails and logging roads, a handful of downed trees and standing snags left on site for wildlife habitat and nutrient cycling.

Over the past year, the project has been working with two wood-heated public high schools to figure out how well these goals work in practice. There are some challenges to face, such as the need to establish more local wood chipping facilities and to train more loggers to work with low-impact harvesting equipment. But there are also new doors opening as more people experiment with the model. In Bristol, Vermont, for instance, two forests near the high school will serve as wood suppliers, a local chipping company is ready to buy logs from those forests, and students are being trained in forest monitoring.

The answer to what increasing demand for fuel wood will mean for our forests may very well depend on how successfully people can work together in the Northeast, through projects like Vermont Eco-Wood Energy, to shape the transition from fossil fuels to wood fuels into a benefit for forests and people alike.


  1. I’ve thought about adding a wood- or pellet-burning stove to my house, but thought it might not be good for the environment because of the emissions from the burning wood. Is that not an issue? This article didn’t talk about that aspect.

  2. The beauty of wood chips for fuel is the furnace can be fired by an auger–no need to get up in the wee hours and throw logs on the fire. Wood was my sole source of heat through 27 Minnesota winters and I still get up at 4 AM to fire the stove I no longer have.

    But chips or logs, a well managed stand of northern hardwood will produce a 4X4X8 cord–nearly two tons–of deadfall wood per acre per year. If a homeowner has access to as little as seven acres, he or she should never have to cut a living tree–except obviously one in the way of the tractor or pickup. Yes, your stove will produce CO2, but your remaining living trees should clean that up. Zero carbon footprint? Maybe.

    Burn here, burn now!

  3. I have a weekend home/cabin in a remote location and we decided not to run electricity to the cabin. That was partially for environmental reasons, but it was also going to cost a lot. Our cabin is in the Texas hill country, and it only gets to below 40 degrees 15 or 20 times a year. We have a wood burning system for heat, a solar powered water heater (with a propane on demand system as a backup), soar panels for electricity with batteries, and a propane generator when we need extra power when it is really hot, or when we have a few overcast days in a row. We love it and it will finish paying for itself in about 2 more years. woodheat.org is a great resource

  4. The places in my area are VERY CLOSE together..some new homes have been built behind me and I have had to smell wood-smoke in my mobile home all winter. I have lived here for years and as this is the first time I’ve smelled this smoke I believe it’s from the new homes. I wish that people would have consideration for others..my lungs ache..my eyes burn..and I now cough so bad folks joke about my being a smoker(NEVER!). I for one abhor wood-burning. Yes, oil and gas ARE contributing to global warming..but what about our lungs? Don’t they matter? There has GOT to be something healthier then ANY of the aforementioned:(

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