Back to News & Media

Is it time to reduce the use of solid fuels to heat our homes?

Analysis: the use of solid fuels in open fires and stoves has been linked with increasing levels of poor air quality and pollution - Dr. John Eakins, Department of Economics, Cork University Business School, ERI, UCC

As winter sets in, many households will be lighting their open fires, stoves and other appliances in response to the onset of colder weather. But the use of solid fuels in open fires and stoves has been the subject of much debate in recent times, particularly in relation to its links with poorer air quality.

From RTÉ News, weekend levels of air pollution were at a 30 year high

In September, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a report on Air Quality in Ireland 2019While air quality in Ireland is generally good, it showed that localised issues in some of our cities, towns and villages were a cause of concern. Levels of particulate matter exceeded World Health Organization air quality guidelines at 33 monitoring sites across the country.

The main source of particulate matter in Ireland, especially the smaller and more dangerous PM2.5 particles, is solid fuel burning for home heating. Even when used in small amounts, solid fuel burning can emit significantly higher levels of particulate matter relative to alternative fuels for home heating. The EPA estimates that particulate matter from the burning of solid fuel leads to approximately 1,300 premature deaths in Ireland every year. In our new Covid-19 world, it is also interesting to note research which examines the relationship between air pollution exposure and higher Covid-19 cases and deaths in other countries.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, the EPA's Ciara McMahon on their Air Quality Report 2019

In July of this year, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Eamon Ryan, signed regulations to give legal effect to the extension of the smoky coal ban to all towns with populations over 10,000 people. Some have argued, however, that a broader range of measures should be examined to facilitate the transition away from burning any type of smoky solid fuel to heat our homes.

In order to support this transition, it is important to develop a better understanding of the extent of use of solid fuels in the residential sector. Energy use data from the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) shows a downward trend in the consumption of solid fuels in the residential sector since 1990 although the rate of decrease has slowed since around the turn of the century. Solid fuels now comprise approximately 13.6% of total energy use in the residential sector in contrast to 61.8% in 1990, 24% in 2000 and 16.4% in 2010.

One particularly interesting facet of solid fuel use in the residential sector in Ireland, is its predominant use as a supplementary fuel. The 2016 Census of Population data tells us that heating oil and natural gas are the most popular fuels used for central heating (40.4% and 33.5% share in 2016) but it is possible that many of these households use solid fuels for supplementary heating in an open fire, stove or range.

From RTÉ Archives, Cathy Halloran reports for RTÉ News in 1989 on how coal merchants have set up an early-warning system with the Meteorological Office to warn consumers of potential smog

In 2014, the CSO carried out a survey on Household Environmental Behaviours and included questions relating to the main fuel used to heat the home and the fuels used for supplementary heating. Of the sample of approximately 13,000 households surveyed, 16% indicated that they used solid fuels (coal, peat and wood logs) as their main fuel to heat their home and 47% indicated that they use solid fuels as a supplementary fuel. While it is important to note that the survey didn't record actual rates of usage of solid fuels, the high incidence for supplemental solid fuel use in Irish households can provide some context for why the EPA has found evidence of higher particulate matter concentrations and poorer air quality in our cities, towns and villages.

Ongoing research has also shown that the characteristics of households using solid fuels as their main source of home heating can be different to those using solid fuel as the supplementary source of heating. For example, factors such as age of the household head, location, age and energy efficiency of the dwelling were strongly associated in the survey with the choice of solid fuel as the primary source of heating but were less influential in determining those households that use solid fuels as a supplementary source of heating. In short, the characteristics of those using solid fuel as a supplementary source of heating are more diverse, but the characteristics of those using solid fuel as a primary source of heating are more specific.

Our strong affinity for the use of the open fire or stove is a significant barrier, but this should not give an excuse for inaction

This has implications for the design of policies to support a just transition away from solid fuels and improve air quality. For households which are solely reliant on solid fuels, the transition may be more difficult and so measures which focus on reducing consumption, incentives to switch to lower particulate solid fuels or installing eco-stoves could have a greater impact. For households using solid fuels as a supplemental fuel, the transition may be easier as alternative fuel sources are already present. Therefore, a broad set of policies with specific measures catering for both types of solid fuels users as part of an overall package may be more practical.

The issue is a complex one, and our strong affinity for the use of the open fire or stove is a significant barrier, but this should not give an excuse for inaction. In England, the government announced a ban on the sale of coal and wet wood for domestic use by the end of 2021. The recent EPA Air Quality report should be the spur to address similar sources of poor air quality in Ireland as well.