One of the troubling findings of recent public health research has been that communities  with higher exposure to particulate pollution, especially black communities, are experiencing higher COVID-19 hospitalizations and death rates. Fossil fuel combustion is one of the leading sources of particulate matter in the U.S., especially from coal-fired power plants and diesel and gasoline powered internal combustion engines. Over 2/3 of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant.

Here in Vermont, moving away from diesel and gasoline vehicles and from fossil fueled heating systems is one way we can improve air quality and health. But not all renewable alternatives are created equal. While Vermont’s heavily renewable electricity supply (62% renewable and 92% carbon-free as of 2019) is incredibly clean and a much healthier energy source for our transportation and heating needs than fossil fuels, there is wide variation in the particulate matter produced by different forms of wood heating, which can produce even more particulates than fossil fuel heating.

relative particulate emissions chart

While automated pellet boilers (.032) and then EPA certified pellet stoves (.49) are the healthiest of wood heating options, heating with open fireplaces (28) or outdoor wood boilers or old wood stoves (4.6) produces significant amounts of PM2.5 and is particularly unhealthy.

If you have an old wood stove that you’d like to change out to improve both indoor and outdoor air quality and save money, check out incentives available through the Clean Energy Development Fund and Efficiency Vermont.

For more on the opportunity to increase efficient wood heating while reducing particulate emissions, see this white paper from the Biomass Energy Resource Center.