Net Zero Advocates Wrong on Wood Pellets

Net Zero Advocates Wrong on Wood Pellets

A bill introduced in Massachusetts last winter offers a definition of “net zero” builidng that specifically excludes combustion as a means of primary space heating.

By Tim Portz | August 16, 2023


In mid-July, a bill initially introduced in February by Rep. Simon Cataldo to the 193rd General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was heard by the Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee. The bill, officially H.3151, offers a definition of “net zero” building initially called for when the Commonwealth established the Office of Energy Resources and outlined its powers and duties.

Rep. Cataldo’s bill offers that definition, and disappointingly, it aligns with other net zero policy recommendations and specifically excludes combustion as a means of primary space heating. The definition is offered as a stretch energy code, but the same bill would codify this definition in the state’s building energy code (appendix 115AA) by Jan. 1, 2028, “notwithstanding any special or general law, rule or regulation to the contrary.”

How and when this would negatively impact wood pellet demand in Massachusetts if passed is unclear, but what the bill crystalizes is that net zero advocates see no room for combustion in the home of the future, regardless of the carbon properties of the fuel being combusted, renewable wood pellets included. This bill, and others like it, seek to establish residential and commercial spaces that generate their own heat and power on-site, putting an arbitrary box around the structure and insisting that the carbon equation works out within those strict confines.

The challenge for wood pellets within this net zero paradigm is that the carbon benefit of our product extends well beyond the walls of the homes and businesses where they are combusted for their Btus. In recent history, our sector has pointed to that expansive carbon benefit as one of our calling cards, but in the context of the current thinking of net zero advocates, it feels more like a liability. Our industry, and other generators of carbon-beneficial, renewable Btus must push back on this thinking.

The carbon cycle doesn’t think in these types of arbitrary terms, but more important than that is insisting that carbon benefits be delivered inside of tight parameters dramatically reduces the range of solutions available to our society as we work to blunt the impacts of climate change. Both our economy and our installed energy infrastructure are complex, interconnected systems and this needs to be recognized and embraced, not shunned. Is a net zero home really net zero if the waste materials created in the manufacture of its component materials have no viable market? What about the energy generated from waste products flowing out a net zero home via curbside waste collection and the sewer? Generating biogas from both of those waste streams is commonplace across the country, but based on this narrow definition of a net zero building, both would be ineligible for use in a space heating application.

Attacking the carbon challenge with this approach feels a bit like trying to drive a car while looking through a drinking straw. In both instances, the whole picture is missed. Like it or not, our economy and our modern lifestyle throw off a tremendous volume of waste materials. Fortunately, innovation and economic imperative have salvaged many of these materials from the waste bin and found new uses and new markets for them. The energy policies that we introduce and champion today should seek to reward and amplify this, not to restrict and curtail it.

Finally, and perhaps most frustrating of all, is that the materials that are used to make wood pellets for home heating applications will continue to be generated, whether wood pellets can be used in a net zero home or not. So long as policies that limit the energy marketplace for these materials are introduced and passed, we are simply kicking the carbon can down the road.

Author: Tim Portz
Executive Director, Pellet Fuels Institute