Give me a crash course in ... new solid fuel standards

Much tighter rules are on the way from September next year. Here’s what to expect

The end of the open fire? Photograph: iStock

The end of the open fire? Photograph: iStock

 

What are the implications of new standards for domestic solid fuels?

From September 2022, much tighter regulations will come into force on domestic solid fuels. This is in response to emerging evidence that open fires and wood-burning stoves can give rise to the worst forms of air pollution.

Some 1,300 Irish deaths a year are linked to solid-fuel burning in domestic settings. Their impact on the environment, by way of carbon emissions contributing to a warming planet, has long been apparent.

In effect, all smoky fuels will be banned across the country, ending the anomaly whereby cities and major towns had a smoky coal ban yet householders elsewhere could burn what they liked – often facilitating the sale of smuggled fuels of dubious quality from across the Border.

The main threat comes from smoky coal, peat and wet wood. There is every indication turf should be on the list as well but, curiously, personal use will continue to be allowed for this in rural areas with turbary rights.

Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan defended this on the basis that new standards will apply right across the fuels sector, a large industry.

Clearly, such fuels should have no place in energy systems any more, especially because of health effects, with children and older people being most vulnerable. They are a big source of PM2.5; tiny particles identified by the World Health Organisation as the most serious air pollutant for human health.

Does this signal the end of the open fire?

It doesn’t mean the open fire is outlawed in existing homes. A great many households will continue to use that heat source predominantly – tens of thousands of people experiencing fuel poverty will have little choice but to do so. But the fuel type used will have to have low levels of smoke and sulphur.

Building regulations introduced in 2014, however, have effectively banned the open fire from newly built homes in a move to have “zero-energy” buildings. When the Government announces later this year details of a massive programme to retrofit 500,000 homes by 2030, heat pumps are set to become the dominant heat provider.

Many of these fuels will also be subjected to increasing carbon tax in coming years in an attempt to nudge us off fossil fuels, so buying a house where the fireplace is the main source of heat might not be wise.

Are wood-burning stoves facing the same fate?

Not if they are of the correct standard and using the right type of fuel. Standards have been applied to wood for the first time, the underlying message being that wet wood use should be curbed because of high levels of PM2.5 and CO2. Already dozens of wood fuel suppliers only produce fuel to the 25 per cent moisture content standard that is coming into force. It makes for a much cleaner and efficient fuel.

Such wood products should be part of “the range of options available to homeowners to decarbonise their heating systems where retrofit is prohibitive for various reasons”, according to the Irish BioEnergy Association.

They offer homeowners an opportunity to decarbonise their home heating systems very quickly, it insists. This needs to be encouraged through government supports and incentives, as for many the cost of deep-retrofitting is financially and logistically prohibitive.

How can we know the extent of air pollution in our locality?

The EPA, through a network of almost 100 monitoring stations, provides real-time indication of air pollution, while weather forecasting will soon provide air quality indications for coming days.

Enforcement will be critical to ensuring that threat is significantly diminished. The one missing piece in the jigsaw is detail on how all this will be enforced. Ireland’s first national clean air strategy, due to be outlined by the Government shortly, is expected to address this issue.
 

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