Driving woodburning change

Concerns about domestic woodburning in the UK and its impact on air quality have recently been brought to the fore again by groups such as Mums For Lungs. We recognise that this is a hugely complex challenge that faces the industry and, as the not-for-profit solid fuel safety and standards organisation, HETAS continues to support cleaner and safer choices for the use of biomass and other solid fuels, appliances and associated technologies. As such, we’re working to drive further change across the industry with more research, education, training and enforcement against those who break the rules, if the use of wood burning and solid fuels is to fulfil its potential as a cleaner, carbon neutral heat source in the UK and reduce its impact on air quality.

driving change in wood burning

Science matters

We all breathe the same air and as an organisation we are dedicated to doing all we can to help push towards cleaner burning. To do this effectively, we must first get the science right and ensure it’s properly understood. In the government’s Clean Air Strategy in 2019, it was estimated that the domestic burning of wood and coal is responsible for 38% of PM2.5 emissions in the UK, which is more than industrial combustion and road transport. Since then, scientific research has significantly cast doubt on this estimate, as has Defra’s own additional research that found the total wood consumption in UK homes was likely 58% less than estimated in the data that underpins the Clean Air Strategy.

In fact, indoor heating is the only part of the whole domestic burning that’s regulated and this is just one small part of the whole picture that contributes to that estimated 38%. To make a bigger impact on the reduction of domestic burning on air quality we must have greater understanding of which burning sources truly make the greatest contribution to poor air quality. HETAS continues to work with all relevant government departments to advise on this matter.

Appliances in action

The industry is preparing for incoming Ecodesign legislation which will outlaw the sale of inefficient non-compliant stoves from 1 January 2022. Burning dry wood with a moisture content of up to 20% in a modern Ecodesign compliant appliance emits up to 80% less emissions than a 10-year-old stove, but some lobby groups claim this isn’t enough. Although Ecodesign is a step forward in legislating against inefficient stoves, HETAS recognises that Defra Exempt appliances meet a more robust piece of legislation and are proven to release only minimal emissions into the atmosphere. However, the good news is that we are seeing many manufacturers already exceeding Ecodesign standards, but we need to be making consumers more aware of differences in performance when they’re choosing a stove. 

In addition, as an industry we need to provide further clarity on the measurement of PM2.5 emissions from modern burning appliances. The estimates currently circulated in the media that domestic fires create three times more tiny particle emissions than all road traffic in the UK, or 750 times more tiny particle pollution than a modern HGV truck, are given without context and are unsupported by real-world testing. 

We know from discussion with HETAS Registered installers that they want to see further innovation from appliance manufacturers to help drive change in the industry:

William Stares from Stone and Stove in Swansea, says:

“Woodburning stoves and solid fuel appliances remain a popular choice, seemingly even more so at the moment, because people don’t want to be held to ransom by increasing gas prices. But if the industry is going to survive, we need to tackle air pollution head on and do everything we can to guide people towards clean combustion. To me, this starts with the stove and manufacturers and I’d really like to see manufacturers putting more into research and development that will make appliances easier to use and control.”

Part of the UK’s energy mix

While we agree that the industry undoubtedly must do more to tackle air pollution, we must also be clear about the advantages that wood and solid fuel brings to the current energy debate as the country looks to move away from dependence on fossil fuel.

The majority (85%) of residential buildings in the UK are connected to the gas grid so there are huge challenges to be overcome in the long-term replacement of gas heating, and currently, around 70% of UK housing stock is thought to be unsuitable for heat pumps. It therefore seems sensible to consider using a combination of sources that can complement each other, which could include wood or solid fuel to provide top-up room heating.

We don’t expect wood or other biomass fuels to be the silver bullet for delivering low carbon heat and power to the masses. Nevertheless, it is likely to provide part of the answer to how we warm up the UK’s poorly insulated and hard to heat homes using a sustainable fuel – and one that’s available now. 

In addition, we know that the recent gas price hikes are driving more installations as people look to find solutions that give them greater fuel independence and affordability.

David Phelps from Phelps Property Services in Tewkesbury, says:

“I’m busier than I’ve ever been when it comes to installing or replacing woodburning stoves and it’s definitely being driven by customers who want to use less gas to heat their homes. At the moment, deciding to install a stove is about so much more than aesthetic appeal, it’s a more affordable way to take the chill off than using gas and electric.”

Need for greater enforcement

While we advocate the safe and efficient use of wood and solid fuel burning appliances, we don’t encourage domestic burning over and above zero emissions solutions and simply wish to ensure any risks are minimised though product, installation and fuel certification so that balanced decisions can be made to protect public health. 

As part of this, we also recognise the issuing of just 19 fines from 18,600 complaints is not enough. Therefore, we’re doing a great deal of work with government and local authorities to support them with knowledge and advice to bring about greater enforcement that is urgently required.