My question was simple: “Why are you here?”
And so was the answer: “I am concerned about saving the planet!”
This past weekend, I was on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., for the Alliance for Green Heat’s Woodstove Design Competition. As a board member of the alliance, I was supporting the effort by giving tours to people interested in what was going on inside this huge tent on the National Mall with a dozen metal chimneys poking out of the top.
That gave me the opportunity to interact with a wide variety of people from many parts of the country in a short period of time. Three of my guests captured the essence of many other conversations this past weekend and of the whole idea of using wood for energy. They revolved around renewability, sustainability and cleanliness.
This 70ish gray-haired woman had come from New Jersey specifically to see the competition, which was focused on two things: automating woodstoves to reduce operator errors that can result in more pollution and less efficiency than the devices are designed for and producing a small amount of electricity from a woodstove.
She wanted to see how using renewable wood from urban and rural forests could help reduce the use of fossil fuels to heat and power our houses. She was delighted to see the hub-bub of activity by the judges with all their equipment and computers monitoring the fine particulates, carbon monoxide and other emissions, measuring the amount of electricity being produced and the innovative ways of accomplishing the automation.
The second conversation was with two National Institutes of Health research doctors who wandered in off the Mall as they enjoyed a weekend off and the beautiful sunny but cool fall weather.
The woman in the couple did research related to human lung health and the effects of fine particulates and the organic compounds in smoke from incomplete combustion. She was surprised at the lack of visible smoke coming from the chimneys and the warmth she felt when they came into the tent with all these different stoves in operation.
The fact that there was a competition to improve the cleanliness, and that it was being monitored by scientists from the Department of Energy, universities, the U.S. Forest Service and the EPA brought a big smile to her face. We showed her a small electrostatic precipitator that was being demonstrated. It is a pollution control device developed by a Swiss company to dramatically reduce air pollution.
They were demonstrating it on an older, more polluting type of stove. She immediately understood the ramifications of the more efficient stoves. They not only put out very small amounts of particulates, but by being more efficient with more complete combustion, the particulates that do come out are primarily ionic salts rather than volatile organic compounds.
Her husband wandered off to look at the Maine Energy System’s wood pellet boiler with a Stirling engine on top that allowed it to produced about 180,000 btus (enough for 2-4 houses) and 4-5 killowatts of electricity (enough for 1 house). Their serendipitous outing had provided a whole new understanding of what was possible in terms of clean renewable energy at the household level.
The third conversation was with a woman who is a research physicist. She was skeptical about the sustainability aspects of using wood. Her preference was that every roof in the country should have solar panels. I pointed out that producing heat from electricity is very inefficient and wood heat can be extremely efficient as shown by the various devices on display.
She then expressed her concern about the long time it takes to regrow a tree or forest after it is cut down. This provided the opportunity to discuss the reality that when a forest is managed sustainably, no more is cut than is grown; every year the amount of wood removed is replaced. She hadn’t thought about it from that angle before.
These design competitions are great venues for innovators to learn from each other, to share the new possibilities that technological advancements can have in providing products for the marketplace while improving society’s air quality, a truly triple bottom line success.
We will provide additional articles on this competition, including photos displayed so you can see what that tent on the nation’s mall contained for less than a week, but sowed the seeds of new possibilities for years to come.