Burning wood for the Planet's good

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

Wood is a renewable resource – if and when properly managed – and most importantly, it is carbon neutral when used as a fuel.

In fact wood, that is to say firewood is, in the form of proper logs, to my knowledge, the only carbon neutral fuel, so far, for heating and cooking, as it releases only the amount of CO2 that it absorbed during the lifetime of the tree and no more.

This is and remains equally true whether it is being burned in combined heat and power generating plants (CHPs), general power station furnaces ir in fact in home furnaces or wood/solid fuel burning stoves.

While coal, and even peat, are both also plant matter and even trees, in a way, only much older, their impact when burned is not carbon neutral. There is no such thing as clean coal and neither coal nor peat are renewable and sustainable.

It is true that, to achieve the same BTU we will perhaps require somewhat more wood in comparison to coal, oil or gas, but, what is the problem?

This would also mean more trees and, not, not foreign fast growing ones such as Eucalyptus, etc., as biomass, planted and hence more CO2 captured by those that are best at in, namely trees.

While it may be true that this wood, in the end, will release the captured CO2 again it should be a “close cycle” basically or even better than that.

But none of this will ever work as long as we can have cheap coal from abroad or even from within the territorial borders of our own countries.

We recently get inundated with the term “clean coal” which, in my opinion, is somewhat of an oxymoron and those two words do not go together really. Much in the same way as “liberal” and “government” just do not fit together, for there is no clean coal nor liberal government.

There are ways of making coal burning cleaner, yes. But using the term “clean coal” detracts from the truth. Coal is by its very nature, dirty, in more than one way.

It is, however, possible, to clean up the emissions from the burning of coal, in power stations, by use of so-called “scrubbers” in the chimneys and some countries in fact employ that technology and have been doing so for ages. They use the same technology for the burning of waste in use of power generation.

Wood, firewood, on the other hand is, theoretically, as far as CO2 emissions go, clean and neutral. The smoke, well, that still is another problem, as all smoke is, in one way or the other, harmful. Woodsmoke seems less harmful though than other kinds.

In order, however, to make use of wood as a fuel we will need lots more homegrown, for it makes no sense to import such wood from, as far as Britain is concerned, as far afield as Poland and the Ukraine.

This would, obviously, mean creating more woodlands and forests with, to some degree, the only purpose of raising firewood. Coppices will provide the best solution here and we must also begin to, once again, manage the old existing copses all around the British Isles that have been left nigh on idle for about half a century if not longer even. Be they left in that state for much longer they will all be history for the coppice stools will simply break apart from the weight of the multiple trunks and that will be the end of those copses.

The time is now. In fact the real time for this was the day before yesterday.

There would be a good deal more firewood available if the old management practices would be employed once again and brashings from trees and limbs and tops and such would, instead of being left laying about as “habitat piles” which are (1) a fire hazard, (2) a forest health hazard and (3) bad for the environment as the decaying wood not only releases the CO2 that was stored in it during its growth but also methane. The latter reckoned to be a greenhouse gas to be far worse than CO2.

Once upon a time a “clean forest” was the standard practice and there was more wildlife, including invertebrates, fungi, etc., that we have today. Then came those young whippersnappers who thought they knew better than the only foresters and see where it has gotten us.

A lot of the wildfire problems in the various US states are due to bad forestry practice of leaving debris as “habitat” for such invertebrates and fungi, etc. However, any such debris creates what in the trade is called a “fire ladder” allowing a grown fire to hit the tops and run away.

This practice also loses us a lot of firewood that could be used much better than being permitted to rot away, releasing aside from the CO2 the other gas, that is to say, methane, which is said to be so much more harmful than carbon dioxide.

In addition to wood from woodlands specifically grown for firewood there are the millions of tons of waste building lumber – which first of should not be waste at all because most of it is reusable as is - and which gets buried in holes in the ground, aka landfills, where it decays releasing again the above mentioned two greenhouse gases. Much better burning that and only releasing the one, less harmful one.

Now, go and grow some firewood.

© 2009