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Shedding Light On Rural Heat

Craig Dalzell

If the Scottish Government knew they were going to abandon its climate targets (see Robin’s column for more on that) then they could have probably saved themselves a lot of strife last week over their botched policies and communications around rural heating. If they had listened to us almost five years ago when we submitted a comprehensive policy paper and two extensive policy briefings to them on decarbonising heat in off-grid and rural areas, they might have avoided both weeks of bad headlines now.

Part of the reason for the stramash over the wood stove “ban” is miscommunication which led to folk believing that the government was coming to rip out their stoves or to ban them from installing one in their existing home (the ban mainly applies to newbuilds – see here for how this is directly affecting Andy Wightman right now), part of the problem came from MSPs not really understanding (or willfully misunderstanding) what they were voting for when the Bill passed through Parliament or not speaking out then when it did (standard issue politics there then, especially in highly whipped party systems that brook no internal dissent). The main problem though, is that the entire policy was based on trying to hit a number on a graph without having any idea about how to do it.

There are good reasons to limit the use of wood-fired heating. Supplied badly, they can result in great environmental harm as primary forest is chopped down for wood pellets. Built badly, they can also have a deleterious effect on the air quality in a home and, especially in urban areas, outdoors if there is a high density of burners in the area (just as cities used to be when everyone burned coal). Granted, the means of mitigating that latter problem may result in things like wood burners being situated in an outhouse and the heat piped into the home or even a communal biomass burner feeding a district heating network and those aren’t nearly as “romantic” as a coorie roon the fire. But neither is emphysema from breathing in soot.

However, the restrictions aren’t based so much on that idea as they are about hitting a target around “zero direct emissions”. This is explicitly a pro-heat pump policy because it says that the most important thing is that the mechanism that heats your house in particular emits no carbon. It says nothing about how that carbon was generated (a burned log is roughly net zero carbon even though it emits carbon as it burns due to the carbon it sequestered while growing and bio-fuels like bio-LPG or bio-kerosene are similar in that regard) or how the heating system was powered (a heat-pump powered by gas-fired electricity might be less carbon intensive than a gas boiler, but it’s probably more carbon intensive in the round than the wood burner).

In our policy paper Carbon-Free, Poverty-Free we discussed various options for decarbonising rural heating and wood burners are absolutely part of that mix where a) the housing density is low enough and the systems are designed such that particulate pollution can be managed and b) that it is easy to supply the burners with local otherwise scrap wood – I know plenty of people, family as well as colleagues at Common Weal included, who pick up much of their fuel wood from their own garden. This is a far cry from imported Canadian clear-cutting.

More to the point though, the paper says that rural heating is an issue that should be developed from a local level and should involve tailoring the ideal transition strategy pretty much to the individual house level. There will be “compact rural” villages that are ideal for a small heat network run via a wind turbine, a patch of solar thermal panels and a derelict quarry as a thermal store (my own village might well qualify for that!)

Many houses can have their heating electrified though the concern in that some areas of rural Scotland have issues with power cuts (mitigated by batteries sufficient to see one through) and, perhaps more importantly, with getting parts to repair broken heat pumps (which might mean, for example, designing the electric heating around solid state IR panels instead, though these can be more expensive to run which means, again, solar panels and batteries to maximise cheap electric tariffs).

Then there will be a few houses, perhaps the most isolated ones, where the best solution is to use bio-fuels to run a relatively conventional oil burner.
And, yes, there will be houses where the best solution is a heat pump and many of those will be the houses that are newbuilds and were specifically designed around that kind of heating system.

The point is, a regulation designed to meet a target isn’t necessarily one that puts Folk First. I hope that the Scottish Government reflects on this as it abandons and rebuilds its climate targets this week. We need to see a credible action plan that isn’t just a straight line on a chart but is an actual roadmap that will lead to Scotland meeting its climate obligations and improving lives. As we did almost five years ago, Common Weal repeats our offer to Scottish Government Ministers. If you would like us to brief you on our Common Home Plan and would like us to show you how it impacts your area in particular (as it will) then we are happy to give you as much of our time as you need to develop that action plan and then deliver on it. You know where to find us.

2 thoughts on “Shedding Light On Rural Heat”

  1. I’m afraid I can’t agree with this statement: “a burned log is roughly net zero carbon even though it emits carbon as it burns due to the carbon it sequestered while growing “. As a letter signed by 800 scientists (https://www.euractiv.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2018/01/Letter-of-Scientists-on-Use-of-Forest-Biomass-for-Bioenergy-January-12-2018.pdf) says: “Even if forests are allowed to regrow, using wood deliberately harvested for burning will increase carbon in the atmosphere and warming for decades to centuries – as many studies have shown – even when wood replaces coal, oil or natural gas. The reasons are fundamental and occur regardless of whether forest management is ‘sustainable.’ ” We don’t have decades left to get CO2 emissions and concentrations down. It’s true that in some rural areas finding a good alternative to burning wood can be difficult, but that doesn’t make it climate friendly.

    1. Donald McPhillimy

      And what if the wood is a by product of harvesting or woodland management? This wood would be left on the forest floor to rot down and within several years would have suffered the same fate as that cut up, seasoned and put through a stove to generate useful heat. Probably replacing other forms of non renewable fuel.

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