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by Andy Wightman
19 April 2024
Why the 'ban' on wood-burning stoves ignores the needs of rural Scotland

Wood from the thinning of forests can be used sustainably says Wightman | Alamy

Why the 'ban' on wood-burning stoves ignores the needs of rural Scotland

Since 1 April, it is no longer permissible to install a direct-emission heating system (one which produces more than a negligible level of greenhouse-gas emissions) in a new-build house or conversion. This is a ban on oil, coal, gas and wood-based heating systems.

But in response to a fair degree of upset from across rural Scotland in recent weeks at this apparent ban – however partial – on wood-burning stoves, ministers were at pains to point out that this was not, in fact, a ban. Why?

Because, according to the Scottish Government, they can still be installed in new homes to provide emergency heating. The government claims that this concession “recognises the unique needs of Scotland’s rural communities”. The problem with this sophistry is that the Building (Scotland) Amendment Regulations 2023 define emergency heating as an installation to be used only in the event of the failure of the main heating system.

So people can install wood-burning stoves at a cost of anything between £5,000 and £10,000 to be used for a few days per year and, therefore, it’s not a ban. When the Scottish Government banned the use of single-use plastics, it issued a media release titled ‘single-use plastics ban’ despite the fact that there are exemptions for medical devices and uses in personal care.

Banning some things is good. Flammable cladding is not acceptable anywhere. Quite rightly, building standards are designed to ensure that houses are safe, watertight and warm.

But, as highlighted in the consultation responses to the new rules, there was widespread feedback that there could be unintended consequences of this ban for rural communities. Most respondents when asked said there should be “limited and specific situations where use of bioenergy systems would be required in new buildings”. The most common of these was for an exemption for rural communities. This was mentioned in all of the consultation workshops held by the Scottish Government. But a blanket ban was implemented.

What is right for Perth or Glasgow is not necessarily right for the Isle of Eigg, whose future housing plans depend on biomass as they are not on the national grid, or an off-grid house in Galloway.

Remarkably, while new-builds face a ban, the government’s consultation on a new Heat in Buildings Bill, which will affect existing homes, contemplates the continuing use of biomass in certain conditions. “We recognise that as a renewable, and potentially net zero, energy source bioenergy may represent the best option to help decarbonise some homes”, the consultation paper states. “Do you agree that the use of bioenergy should continue to be permitted in certain circumstances?”, the consultation, which closed last month, asks.

All of this may seem to many readers to be a minor fuss about nothing much at all. But to many in rural Scotland, such policies seem a blunt and unfair imposition of a new standard that wilfully ignores the distinctive needs of much of rural Scotland.

Wood for energy does need to be restricted. We should not be importing biomass from abroad, for example; forests should not be managed solely for wood fuel; and for health reasons they should be banned completely in built-up areas. 

But there is widespread agreement that we need to expand our forest resource and there is a large and local supply of wood produced from thinning out forests or brash from felling operations that can be used sustainably for heating homes. It is an important part of the forest economy in many parts of rural Scotland.

It is, in fact, how I want to heat a house I am in the process of building myself. After a lot of careful consideration, I decided to install a log-gasification boiler as the main heating system. Such boilers are more than 90 per cent efficient, they feed a very large accumulator tank of hot water, and only need to be fired up every two to four days.

The wood will come from thinning from a forest that I manage locally, cut with a solar-powered chainsaw. There is no market for this kind of low-quality timber from small woods. If I cannot use it for heat, it will lie and rot – and produce carbon emissions – on the forest floor. The fuel wood will emit two per cent of the carbon being absorbed annually by the forest from which it is sourced. 

The house design is rated B for energy efficiency (falling short of A by only two points) and is rated A for carbon emissions. I have planning consent and I even have a grant and loan offer from the Scottish Government to install the boiler. 

Due to technical issues, however, I have yet to submit the final application for a building warrant. This will now as a matter of law be refused and I will incur the expense of revising the planning permission, commissioning new engineering assessments, and preparing a revised building-warrant application. I will also need to reject the grant and loan offer.

If you live in Edinburgh or Glasgow, however, you can still install a wood-burning stove even where you don’t need one and even when it contributes to significant levels of particulate matter pollution. In rural Scotland, you can live in or near a forest, perhaps off grid, but you are not allowed to use what is still a renewable low-carbon fuel when appropriately sourced and combusted.

I am vegan, I drive an electric car, I don’t fly, I live much of the time off grid with solar power and wood fuel. I am pretty green, but obviously not the right kind of green. This blanket ban is really silly.

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