An open fire is one of the enduring symbols of comfort in Ireland. From the coal-filled fires with sumptuous marble mantelpieces of Georgian homes to sleek modern wood-burning stoves in contemporary houses, we associate heat from solid fuels with both emotional and physical wellbeing.
So strong is our connection to burning turf, briquettes, coal and wood in our homes that the Government this week decided to ask the public whether it should ban the burning of all smoky fuels rather than expand its – largely urban – ban on smoky bituminous coal nationwide.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said: “We now know that peat, briquettes and wood are as bad for air quality as smoky coal.” His comment coincided with a threat from coal firms from outside Ireland to take legal action against the State – arguing that singling out smoky coal would be anti-competitive since peat and wet wood produce similar levels of air pollution.
Some argue that the Government’s delay in extending the ban on smoky coal throughout the country is simply an excuse for inaction on an important environmental issue in the run-up to a general election, but it begs the question whether it is time for us to end our attachment to burning solid fuels.
The Climate Change Advisory Council’s annual review for 2019 reports that the average Irish home emits 58 per cent more energy-related carbon dioxide than the average EU dwelling. According to the review, this figure reflects a high use of fossil fuels, particularly coal, peat and oil for heating and minimal use of renewable energies and district heating compared with other European countries. With 20 per cent of homes heated by solid fuels, Ireland has the second highest use of solid fuel for home heating in Europe (Poland has the highest with 44 per cent of homes heated by solid fuels).
However, the air pollution caused by burning solid fuels for home heating is arguably a much more serious issue. In its most recent air quality report, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) noted that 1,180 people die prematurely due to air pollution in Ireland every year. The report – published on World Lung Day – found that particulate matter (fine particles) from domestic burning of solid fuels was one of two main culprits of poor air quality. Nitrogen dioxide from vehicle emissions in urban areas was the other.
Levels of particulate matter are particularly high during the winter months when people’s use of coal, peat and wood negatively affects air quality – particularly in small towns and villages.
Dr Marie Coggins, a researcher into indoor air pollution at the National University of Ireland in Galway, says that considering people spend up to 70 per cent of their time indoors, indoor air pollution is also a significant issue – particularly in homes where solid fuel is used for heating and cooking.
“In the EPA indoor air pollution and health study, we found homes which burn peat had levels of PM 2.5 [a carcinogenic form of particulate matter which exceeded the World Health Organisation limits.”
Coggins says that indoor air pollution from burning solid fuels is at its highest when fires are first being lit and when they are being refuelled. Pollution from solid fuel fires also comes back indoors from outside smoke.
Those who remember the massive reduction of smog in Dublin city following the ban on smoky coal in 1990, will have sympathy for those suffering from poor air quality in Irish towns which don’t yet have a smoky coal ban.
Paula Freeman, a Leinster champion runner who lives in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, says that the amount of pollution in the air restricts her breathing. “There is smog and smoke from coal, even indoors. When I’m on the track in winter, I come home and can smell the smoke off my clothes. I believe the pollution in the town air is a massive contributing factor to chest infections and respiratory illnesses,” says Freeman.
Enniscorthy is one of the towns in Ireland where smoky coal isn’t yet banned. As many residents continue to burn solid fuel in their homes, the town – which lies in a valley surrounded by hills – has some of the worst air quality in Ireland. Another EPA study found that the levels of particulate matter was twice as high in Longford – which doesn’t have a ban on smoky coal – to Bray – which has a smoky coal ban as well as access to natural gas network.
Minister for Climate Action Richard Bruton is expected to give the go-ahead to extend the smoky coal ban to 13 medium-sized towns (with populations between 10,000 and 15,000) before Christmas. But, can we wean ourselves off the simple pleasure of lighting a fire in the hearth, or keeping the home fires burning for family returning to Ireland for Christmas?
“We are wedded to the open fire in Ireland. It is part of what we see as desirable in a house. It’s a cultural thing with deep anchors in the economy and society but it’s time to convert to other heat sources,” says Tom Halpin, head of communications with the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI).
Arguably, that conversion has already begun, according to SEAI. In its figures on energy use in residential sector, the authority states that between 1990 and 2000, there was a clear switch away from solid fuels used in open fires towards oil and gas central heating systems. Figures from the Central Statistic Office in 2018 report that oil accounts for 52 per cent of energy used to heat our homes and hot water, while gas accounts for 30 per cent and the remaining 19 per cent comes from peat (10 per cent), coal (8 per cent) and wood (one per cent).
Paul Kenny from the Tipperary Energy Agency says that the only way people will move away from burning solid fuels to heat their homes is when they experience the real comfort of a well-insulated home with alternative energy systems.
“The difficulty is that the people who most need energy efficiency in their homes aren’t getting it. There is a higher concentration of solid fuel home heating systems in local authority and ex-local authority houses,” says Kenny.
And in counties with a long tradition of cutting turf, turf continues to be a main source of home heating. For example in Offaly, 38 per cent of households still use turf to heat their homes, compared with Dublin where less than 1 per cent of people use turf to heat their homes.
Kenny believes that people who live in rural areas close to bogs view turf as a cheap fuel, yet they could spend up to €3,000 a year on their combined energy from turf, coal, sticks, fire lighters and electricity. “We did deep retrofits on three ex-local authority homes in Thurles whose fuel bills were €2,400 each. Following the work, these houses were heated for under €1,000.”
Kenny is adamant that we have to move away from burning stuff to keep us warm. He says that when the Tipperary Energy Agency does deep retrofits on people’s homes, they often ask for stoves to be put in but only afterwards realise that they don’t need them. “People still associate having a stove with standing by the fire to keep warm in a freezing cold house,” says Kenny.
Overall, he believes we have to stop burning everything. “It has to start with smoky coal and then work towards banning smokeless coal, turf and wood. There is even a huge difference between the smoke from burning wet timber than dry well-seasoned timber, yet there is no ban on burning wet timber. The Government needs to go about it the right way. For example, in Denmark, people will no longer be allowed to burn anything by 2050.”
John Fitzgerald, chairman of the Climate Change Advisory Council, says we have to recognise that some households – especially older people and those with low incomes – still depend on open fires for heating. “I would favour banning the sale of coal for use in households from next year. In time, we need to stop using turf because it is even more damaging than coal from a climate point of view. But, wood has a role in decarbonising our economy when used correctly.”
Marion Jammet from the Irish Green Building Council points out that the majority of new houses being built in Ireland now don’t have chimneys. So, those moving into these homes won’t have a choice on whether to light fires in their homes or not. “All new homes must have a Building Energy Rating (BER) of A2. Fireplaces are not banned in these new homes but it would be difficult to comply with the A2 rating if you had one,” she says.
Meanwhile, William Fenton of Fenton Fires in Greystones, Co Wicklow, says that people are still putting stoves into older homes in Ireland. “I think people will only keep open fires for occasional use because they have 20-25 per cent [heat] efficiency, but wood-burning stoves have 80 per cent efficiency, and there is a whole new range of them with after-burners which clean the emissions before releasing them into the air.”