On Nov 3, 2008, the town council of Hampstead, Quebec, a suburb of Montreal, banned wood stoves. The by-law adopted by the council contains the most sweeping and uncompromising limits to the use of wood fuel of any jurisdiction in Canada. Response to the move has been mixed, with some commentators critical of the council's hard-line approach and others applauding the effort to reduce air pollution. The most positive outcome of the council's move would be a thoughtful dialogue about where and under what conditions wood burning is appropriate.
Quebec has among the highest household use of wood fuel in Canada, with almost 60 per cent of rural households burning some wood, according to a 2006 federal government survey. Twenty-two per cent of urban households in Quebec burn wood. Wood is not a trivial or marginal energy source, but is a mainstream heating fuel used by over one million Quebec homeowners.
The by-law bans wood stoves, fireplace inserts, central furnaces, pellet stoves and similar devices. The installation and use of conventional fireplaces is not restricted, which is curious considering they are among the most polluting and certainly the most wasteful of all wood burning appliances. Through its by-law, the council seems to suggest that if you are wealthy enough to waste firewood by burning it just for ambience with no heat recovery you are free to do so, but you must not burn wood efficiently in a wood stove. You must not have a wood stove in your home, even to protect your family in the event of an electrical emergency like 1998 ice storm. Is it possible that council fears a backlash from wealthy fireplace owners, but feels confident in going after those who burn wood to save money or to keep their families warm in a crisis?
There are better ways to manage the problem of wood smoke, but they involve a range of steps rather than a simple ban. Wood burning could be permitted, but only in advanced technology equipment that is tested and certified for low emissions. This one step could produce a 90 per cent reduction in smoke pollution. Pellet stoves could be permitted because they have lower emissions than even clean burning wood stoves. Homeowners could be encouraged to burn only seasoned wood and to burn more carefully so that no smoke is visible at the top of their chimneys. People who insist on burning smoky fires could be shamed with photos and videos of their smoke plumes. Wood burning could be restricted during periods of particularly bad air quality. All of these strategies have been used by other municipalities in Canada in the US that have had problems with wood smoke. Follow up studies have shown marked improvement in winter air quality.
Two other important issues need to be considered as part of a discussion of the place of wood heating in Canadian communities. The first is the volatility and generally rising price of conventional fuels that has caused more homeowners to consider wood heating as a cost-saving measure. The second is that greenhouse gas emissions related to energy use continue to rise in Canada. The use of wood for energy is a good strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because it produces by far the lowest carbon emissions of all heating fuels. The simple banning of wood stoves may be expedient for an urban Montreal community, but it is not an appropriate or effective way to deal with an important fuel that has strategic importance for both individual families and the whole country.
The Wood Heat Policy Institute (WHPI) supports the public interest in wood heating and advocates for the responsible use of this important renewable energy resource. WHPI is a source of credible information and analysis of wood heating related issues. It also supports government and non-governmental organizations in policy development related to wood heating. The Institute is an outreach initiative of the Wood Heat Organization (WHO). WHO has provided independent, non-commercial advice to householders interested in the use of wood heat since 1996.