by Toso Bozic, P.Ag Woodlot Specialist/Agriforester
Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development
Phone: 780- 415-2681 Fax : 780- 422-6096

On my recent holiday trip to Eastern USA and Canada, stopping by many small towns and farms I noticed, that almost every farm or even smaller town house has several cords of stacked wood or in many other cases storages of woodchips or wood pallets ready to use for the winter. The ice storm that had hit the eastern parts of Canada in 1998 must have been a wake up call for many, as to regard the use of wood for their energy needs.

The importance of wood as a fuel source fell drastically in the early part of the 1900’s, with better access to electricity, heating oil and natural gas. Events in the early 1970’s, which lead to oil price increases and threats of shortages, have renewed interest in wood heating.

The recent interest in wood bioenergy provides a number of opportunities. In certain areas, woodlots may have been mismanaged, neglected or over-cut or simply there was no market for wood from private land. Harvesting the poor trees for firewood makes room for better wood-stands, lumber or veneer quality trees and reduce the risk for potential forest fire. The wood bioenergy market may also provide an outlet for treetops, slabs, small trees and wood culled in the production of saw logs and veneer logs. Replacing fossil fuels by using wood biomass can provide you with a great number of financial opportunities, including the carbon credits market.

Wood can be used primarily for a great number of heating requirements or in larger scales even for electricity. Many rural residents already use some types of wood heating systems in their homes and shops, mostly through fireplaces or some types of wood burning stove. Due to very high-energy prices, highly efficient and fully automated wood-energy systems have been an established energy alternative for decades in other parts of the world, especially in Europe, lead by Austria,Germany, Sweden, and Finland,proving that it can be viable here too.

Before you decide to use wood for you heating needs there are several things you need to consider including:

  • Wood supply – you need to know how much wood you have in your woodlot, or wood waste in your facility or wood that is currently going into landfill. The key is to understand sustainability of wood supply for your bioenergy operation and the required type and quality of wood fuel for your wood heating operation.
  • Wood Fuel types – there are several wood fuel types of including: logs, sawdust, wood chips and wood pellets. All wood types can be used for heating purposes, and different tree species has different caloric values. A pound of wood will produce nearly the same amount of heat, no matter what species it is. A cubic foot of air-dried white birch weighs about 16 kg, while a cubic foot of white spruce weighs about 11 kg. A larger volume of spruce is required to get the same weight and the same heating value as birch. Furthermore, moisture is one of the key components in the wood supply. Freshly cut timber contains 40-60 % of moisture while wood pellets contain around 8-10% of moisture. Besides your individual heat or energy needs, the type and quality of the wood fuel available to you will define which energy solution would be right for you. Each wood burning system can require different fuel types with various sizes and shapes of fuel particles. You need know that wood pellets, sawdust and wood chips can be stored in the various bin sizes that can automatically feed wood boiler systems while logs are only for manual feed.
  • Environmental issues – Smoke –full combustion systems have no or very minimal smoke, compared to fireplaces or other wood burning systems that emit a large amount of particles that end up in the air.
  • Insurance –many insurance companies may be reluctant to provide you insurance for your house knowing that you using wood as primary heat source. It is very important to let them know about technology that you use and all the safety precautions needs to be presented.
  • Choosing wood boiler system – there are so many products available to rural residence but there are several key factors that needs to be address in this matter
    • Efficiency of the system – most of the European technology has high efficiency systems 85-95 %
    • Automation of the system – how much time do you spend to run the system – again most of the European systems are fully automated, throughout year as you only need to load fuel into storage and minimal maintenance and monitoring
    • Heat load requirement – try to buy system that fits your heat requirements. There are many systems that either too large or to small for you heating requirement.
    • Storage and space requirements for the system
    • Cost and services – beside the cost of the unit it is very important to know what kind of services supplier assists you in case that something goes wrong. There are too many suppliers that will happily sell you system, but if something goes wrong just as happily leave it up to you to fix it.
    • Smoke – most of the full combustion systems produce no or very little smoke (minor at starting-up)

european wood boiler in EdmontonThere are many products on the market in Alberta (very few or none from high efficiency European technology), but your individual energy needs and wood fuel availabilities are the key to find the products that are suitable to your needs and requirements.

Description of wood burning systems for domestic use:

  • Open and enclosed fireplaces: secondary heating source. Wide spread in Alberta and relatively low efficiency. Problems with smoke
  • Various wood burning stoves: suitable as an additional source of space heating. Efficient way of burning logwood. Efficiency is better then open but still have an issues with smoke
  • Pellet stoves: fuelled on pellets and unlike conventional wood burning stoves, pellet stoves are automatic. Wood pellets are fed from the storage hopper into the fire. Warm air is circulated and the heat output is adjustable or made completely hands-free with a thermostat.
  • Pellet boilers: for space and water heating. Performance and size similar to oil boilers.
  • Logwood boilers: similar to pellet boilers, although larger for the same performance and operationally less flexible. Need for heat storage tank. Fuel management an issue.
  • Woodchip boilers: fully automated fuel-feed systems – similar convenience as oil or gas boilers. Controllable, no heat storage tank necessary. Large wood chip storage facility required. More suited to applications where heat demand is high.

Myths about Wood Bio-energy
There are several myths about wood bioenergy that many people don't fully understand and I will address few major ones.

Smoke from wood energySmoke - many Albertan's have been asking me about this issue, as they remember the smoke on farms and in small towns in the 1940's or earlier years. It is a very legitimate environmental concern. My answer to them is simple; the technology has changed so rapidly (especially in Europe, where environmental standards towards smoke and other emssions are much higher then here). Most European systems are fully combustible, safe and reliable. We have, in the heart of Edmonton a wood burning boiler facility that is heating over 37000 square feet with NO smoke and no environmental complaints from anybody including regulatory folks.

Reliability - being used to the reliable and convenient natural gas source for heating in Alberta, people are asking, if wood bioenergy can be as reliable and convenient for their heating needs. A well planned and installed wood system is relatively close to the reliability of natural gas and the convenience of heating oil, though despite theautomatization of the technology, there are differences to be recognized. A wood boiler system has more mechanical componants, where handling might cause problems (eg piece of wood stuck in wood supply chain). With a solid service partner and your natural gas system as a paid for back up, such "emergency" should be easy enough to handle. See, I always wondered what the back up system for natural gas would be- folks from eastern Canada learnt that their back up systems were wood burning stoves.

Fuel delivery- storage is required for wood bioenergy systems compare to natural gas - there are several options in regards to fuel storage. For most of people in farm settings this is not an issue. In the urban areas several various bin storages are available.

Price - natural gas in North America is priced by the market and market fluctuations where none of us have any control. Most of rural residents own forest resources and plentiful available sources for wood bio-energy fuel. You will be able to project the cost and price of the energy that you produce and be in full control of it. Many small businesses will be able to project and obtain lower energy prices from wood bioenergy and be come more competitive on the market.

Wood bioenergy is a very reliable and possible solution for many farms, local communities and businesses. Education and understanding is the key to success in this field. Thousands of small farms and business have been using wood biomass for over 40 years in Europe and would not consider going back to other energy sources. Is it not time for us to jump on the bandwagon?

Web sites for various wood boilers:,id,1,nodeid,1,lang,EN.html