Displacing Wood Use with Electric Thermal Storage Heating to Improve Ambient Air Quality


Navigating the New Arctic (NNA) is one of NSF's 10 Big Ideas. NNA projects address convergence scientific challenges in the rapidly changing Arctic. The Arctic research is needed to inform the economy, security and resilience of the Nation, the larger region and the globe. NNA empowers new research partnerships from local to international scales, diversifies the next generation of Arctic researchers, enhances efforts in formal and informal education, and integrates the co-production of knowledge where appropriate. This award fulfills part of that aim by addressing interactions among social systems, natural environment, and built environment in the following NNA focus areas: Arctic Residents, Data and Observation, Education, and Resilient Infrastructure.

In Arctic regions, space heating is often a necessity, but burning fuel to heat living spaces has substantial financial and environmental costs. In the Fairbanks North Star Borough (FNSB), Alaska, for example, most households use heating fuel oil as their primary source of space heating and firewood as a secondary heating source. Wood-burning heating devices are the largest source of fine particulate matter with a size of 2.5 microns or less, (PM2.5), in the borough, but wood is a relatively low-cost fuel compared to heating fuel oil. The FNSB is classified as a nonattainment area for PM2.5, which is associated with negative impacts on cardiopulmonary health. Electric thermal storage heaters (ETSH) could help solve the PM2.5 problem by replacing the firewood currently used for residential space heating. This research aims to determine whether the use of residential ETSH can mitigate ambient PM2.5 air pollution and fuel poverty in Interior Alaska. This research has public health and policy implications for any community interested in reducing PM2.5 air pollution resulting from wood burning for residential space heating. It also has implications for Arctic communities interested in the relationship between wood burning and the carbon components of PM2.5. This research may lead to a broader adoption of ETSH for space heating, which could improve air quality, reduce fuel poverty, and reduce the carbon footprint of residential space heating.

The project incorporates dimensions of the natural environment, built environment, and social systems through four components: 1) an ETSH field experiment; 2) air quality analysis and modeling; 3) economic analysis; and 4) air quality education. The research objectives of the project will: 1) measure the ambient PM2.5 air pollution in a treatment and control neighborhood before and after the installation of residential ETSH in the treatment neighborhood; 2) conduct emission inventories of the sources of PM2.5 in the control and treatment neighborhoods; 3) model the collected PM2.5 air pollution data, controlling for wind speed and direction, air temperature, and relative humidity, to determine if there is a measurable difference in ambient PM2.5 concentrations between the treatment and control neighborhoods; 4) measure the constituents and estimate the source contributions of PM2.5; 5) forecast how changes in fuel prices and increases in the number and concentration of ETSH may affect ambient PM2.5 air pollution in the FNSB; 6) estimate FNSB residents’ willingness-to-pay (WTP) for electricity to charge ETSH; 7) estimate short-run own-price, cross-price, and expenditure elasticities of demand for residential heating fuels in the FNSB; 8) estimate the impact of ETSH on residential heating expenditures under different electricity rates; and 9) collaborate with FNSB teachers to develop and pilot curriculum materials for a science unit on PM2.5 air pollution.

Logistics Summary

This collaborative project between Pride (2127430, UAF), Betha (2127431, TTU), and Little (2127432, NAU) will conduct natural and social science research to investigate the impacts of electric thermal storage heater (ETSH) usage (to displace wood burning for space heating) on ambient PM2.5 concentrations in a residential area. Further, the interrelationships between economic factors (e.g., fuel price elasticities) and air quality will also be investigated. Researchers will conduct a series of surveys, fuel use inventories, and a field experiment. From the field experiment, researchers will collect ETSH usage data, meteorological data, and air quality data, including PM2.5 concentrations and composition. This data along with the data collected from the residential heating surveys and fuel use inventories, will be fed into air quality modeling and forecasting. Using the own- and cross-price elasticities of heating fuels, researchers will predict how ETSH usage will vary under different electricity rates, which will allow us to examine the relationship between electricity rates and air quality, as well as the impact of ETSH usage on fuel poverty. Researchers will also be able to estimate changes in carbon emissions associated with the use of ETSH. Information from the individual components of the project will inform the development of a K-12 science curriculum focused on PM2.5 air pollution. 

Researchers will install a network of PM2.5 sensors outside of residences across the study area (treatment neighborhood and control neighborhood) in North Pole, Alaska, in Y2 to continuously collect data on ambient PM2.5 concentrations over a three-year period (Y2, Y3, and Y4). In Y3, ETSH will be installed in the homes of field study participants, and their usage data will be collected over Y3 and Y4. Researchers will install carbon sensors in the study area and collect data on black carbon, brown carbon, and organic carbon in Y1, Y2, Y3, and Y4. Researchers will also install weather stations across the study area in Y2 to collect data on wind direction and speed, temperature, and relative humidity over Y2, Y3, and Y4. Additionally, PM2.5 speciation test data will be collected over four years to determine the sources of PM2.5  in the study area.

Two survey instruments will be used: 1) a residential heating survey instrument and 2) a fuel use inventory survey instrument. In total, seven surveys will be administered. A Fairbanks North Star Borough-wide residential heating survey will be administered in Y1 and Y2. The residential heating survey will be administered to ETSH field experiment participants in Y3 and Y4. The fuel use inventory survey will be administered to the households in treatment and control neighborhoods in Y2, Y3, and Y4.

For the education component, a Participatory Action Research (PAR) approach will be used to develop and pilot PM2.5 air pollution curriculum materials. In Y1, teachers will be recruited from local schools to participate in the teacher collaborative, a PM2.5 data visualization web page will be created, and draft PM2.5 classroom curriculum materials will be created. In Y2, the draft curriculum materials will be piloted in local classrooms. In Y3, the field-tested curriculum materials will be presented at a professional development training. In Y4, the findings will be presented at an education conference.

Project PI(s)
Funded Institutions
Northern Arizona University
Texas Tech University
University of Alaska Fairbanks
Other Research Location(s)
North Pole, Alaska
Fairbanks North Star Borough, Alaska
Project Start Date
Sep 2021
Award Year