For years, I’d been reading about homes that used next to no power. The owners usually built their showplaces from the ground up out of materials with names that sounded like comic-book heroes: Icynene, polystyrene, HardiePlank. I fantasized about living in one of those clean boxes of light, sipping energy by the thimbleful. But like it or not, my home is a Victorian fixer-upper that I bought many years ago; it came outfitted with a gas stove from the 1930s, a warren of dark parlors, and a pink bathroom. When I tell people how little I paid for it, they gasp. I am truly grateful to this house for being so ugly that it scared away all other buyers. But how are you supposed to inject, say, a high-tech insulation material into walls already full of horsehair, squirrel bones, and ancient newspapers? And what if your budget for renovation is as outdated as the house itself?
That afternoon four years ago, as the oil truck growled away, I decided to approach the problem differently. Rather than take the high-tech route to energy independence, I would take the cow path: I would think like a Victorian. After all, in the 19th century, before petroleum was king, people often depended on renewable resources—like whale blubber and dead trees—to power their homes.
In today’s lingo, they were using biomass fuels.
Indeed, if not for the advent of supercheap fossil fuels in the early 20th century, we might still be relying heavily on farms and forests for renewable energy. When Rudolf Diesel debuted his engine at the Paris World’s Fair in 1900, it chugged on peanut oil. He had designed it to eat just about any kind of oil, from kitchen grease to sunflower seed, believing that DIY fuel would usher in an agrarian revolution. The "common folk" would be able to brew up their own moonshine in their bathtubs and pour it into their tractors and cars. Then petroleum gushed in Texas, and the rest is history.
About a decade ago, environmentalists began to revive Diesel’s dream. They discovered that vehicles with diesel engines—from a VW Rabbit to a school bus—could still run on vegetable oils. However, the food oil needed to be chemically modified into a blend called biodiesel; otherwise it would clog up the engine. In the beginning, some brave souls brewed up biodiesel in home labs. Now, it’s available at hundreds of gas stations across the United States, as well as through bulk-fuel dealers. It behaves very much like regular diesel, which is to say you pump it into your car and then you forget about it.
If biodiesel could power a bus, why not the oil burner in my house? I added my name to a list at the Massachusetts Energy Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit promoting alt-fuels; as soon as thirty people signed up, a local fuel company would dedicate one of its trucks to us, selling biodiesel for about the same price as conventional fuel oil. In 2004, that truck pulled up in front of our house, silver and gleaming. My boyfriend, Kevin, and I performed a victory foxtrot in the kitchen while our oil burner juiced up. As it turned out, the dancing was a little premature: the fuel we were buying was actually only 10 percent biodiesel, mixed in with conventional diesel. Biodiesel is still a fringe solution for home heating. But if it gains in popularity, we should all be able to look forward to a greater range of mixes.
Meanwhile, how green is veggie fuel, really? One thing is sure: It improves the air quality in your neighborhood, since it burns like popcorn oil rather than truck fuel. But when you’re assessing biodiesel’s impact on the wider world, the answer depends on the raw materials used to make it. Mass Energy intends to collect as much recycled cooking oil as possible when it becomes available, with the balance made from virgin soybean oil. Blends like this one, while far from eco-neutral, are cleaner than most other available energy options. But as Big Agro companies jump into the market, we’re likely to see biodiesel manufactured in ways that devastate the developing world. Already, the European demand for alt-fuels has created havoc in countries that produce palm-kernel oil, such as Indonesia and Malaysia.
Asian farmers have been draining peat bogs and burning rainforests to make room for rows and rows of palm trees—so that people in Germany can buy attractively priced "green" fuel. So, while it’s important for American customers to demand a biodiesel option, the fuel has to be made the right way. And when it’s made the wrong way, we need to raise hell.
Once I got a taste of biofuels, I wanted more. That was how I came up with my scheme to power our house on trash. It was in the middle of summer, and I had just sawed up apple-tree branches, stuffed them into leaf bags, and dragged them out to the curb. We live in the middle of the city; nonetheless, our yard generates an enormous amount of timber. When I looked up and down the street, I could see yard bags lined up everywhere. That was my "aha" moment: Why not turn our neighborhood into a tree farm?
In a fit of enthusiasm, I persuaded Kevin that we needed a wood stove. I explained that we could grow and harvest trees on our own postage-stamp of land, and we could trash-pick logs from the neighbors. He tried to mount counterarguments, but I was not to be talked out of my idea.
Much drama ensued. A craftsman named Vaclav spent days on his hands and knees in our dining room, using old-world techniques to wrap a slate shield into a corner. Zoning laws had to be consulted; a building inspector needed to be charmed. The stove itself—black, warty-looking, and insanely heavy—had to be fetched from a faraway store. It was one of the cleanest-burning models
I could find and even contained a catalytic unit that would reburn smoke.
By mid-winter, the stove squatted in its corner, eating like a hog. We fed it wood we’d collected from our yard and those of our neighbors; it scarfed the supply in about two days’ time. And then we had to buy it a huge stack of firewood, delivered on a truck that vomited diesel fumes.
Things weren’t exactly going as planned. The project ended up being far more expensive than I can admit, even to myself, and despite my hopes our neighborhood made a lousy tree farm.
I became obsessed with perfecting my wood-scavenging techniques. Had I been a farmer in the 1850s, I would have tramped into the forest. This being the 21st century, I went to the Craigslist "free" section and typed "firewood." Bingo. I found a woman in a nearby suburb with the remains of an entire oak in her yard; the tree had been chainsawed into logs, the largest of which probably weighed 800 pounds. Kevin and I took two carloads of the smallest stuff and barely dented her supply—if we’d owned a truck we could have amassed enough firewood to last for years.
We spent almost all of last summer handsawing that wood, along with branches from our yard, into stove-sized chunks. We developed really nice-looking biceps and shoulder muscles. It was the sawing—not the amount of wood—that ended up limiting our supply. Why didn’t we buy an ax and chop the wood? Because we have more in common with Paul Krugman than Paul Bunyan, and we’d be likely to get into a political debate while we chopped and end up losing fingers or toes. Still, we managed to produce enough wood chunks to get us through the winter.
How green is our wood heat, really? While our newfangled stove burns about 90 percent cleaner than would its forebears in the Victorian era, the smudge of gray it relelases into the sky still carries a significant dose of lung-killing particles. But the stove wins in other ways. It eats waste that comes from our own region. It’s a carbon-neutral energy source, since the CO2 produced in wood smoke is absorbed by trees, and so on, in a sustainable cycle. Petroleum fuel, by contrast, has to be extracted and hauled thousands of miles, and it pumps into the atmosphere carbon that would otherwise stay locked underground. The upshot is this: Wood stoves are far from perfect, but if your aim is to use only domestic fuel, they do the job.
And they’re just so darn cozy. For the first time ever, we were warm in winter. I used to have to cook dinner wearing one of those giant Politburo fur hats with the earflaps. The first floor was a meat locker. We would burrow in offices at separate ends of the house. The stove, casting that cherry and orange light you see in Rembrandt paintings, brought us together in the dining room. We came to know our firewood by how it would burn; the split pieces flamed fast and sloppy, while the logs baked slowly. We would part a little reluctantly with each hand-gathered, hand-sawed piece. And, when the stove really got going, we would close the pocket doors that divide the living areas, shutting ourselves into the small room to roast like chestnuts.
Pocket doors! Before the stove, I thought they were just another Victorian perversity, like the frou-frou baseboards that are impossible to clean. Now, the layout makes perfect sense: You can control where the heat goes. Those doors are like blankets.
With the summer unfolding, we fling open the pocket doors and encourage the hot air to climb to the attic. With its high ceilings and upward spiral of rooms, this New England house manages to cool off entirely on its own. The living room becomes suffused with a delicious gloom that I associate with old, well-designed homes; the parlor turns shuttered and quiet, as if it has decided to nap through the afternoon. On days like these, the house feels if not modern, at least as smart. I admit it: So do we.