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Is Wood Really a Green Energy Source?

Written by Posted On Sunday, 05 March 2017 12:02

Discussions about climate change and green energy sources are rising to prominence in almost every political sphere. Climate change deniers are now firmly in the minority and people are desperately looking for the green energy answer. Many eyes have turned on wood as a viable option. But there is still some controversy about whether or not wood truly is a green energy source.

Woodburning is becoming increasingly popular in Europe, but it’s not without its issues. So, is wood really a green energy source?

Grappling With Smoke

The biggest and most obvious downside of burning wood is the smoke it produces. Even the cleanest of wood stoves or pellet stoves do produce some air pollution. For urban areas, wood smoke could seriously contribute to air pollution. Smog is already an issue in most metropolitan areas, so wood burning might not be the best option for city dwellers. The last census places nearly 80% of Americans living in cities, the rural opportunity to utilize wood burning is rather small.

But the dangerous effects of smoke pollution might be overblown. Naysayers drone on about how wood burning produces toxic chemicals and some well-known carcinogens. But they fail to note that a city bus or an improperly handled backyard barbeque produces the same amount of toxic material.

New advanced-technology stoves are also doing their part to reduce the amount of smoke produced by wood burning. Newer designs claim to reduce smoke by up to 90%. That’s a great increase! But these new highly technological stoves are expensive. The majority of people in the United States who use wood burning as a primary source of heat live in the Arkansas and West Virginia areas and they are a part of the lower income bracket. These individuals aren’t investing large amounts of money into a new and environmentally friendly stove. So while new EPA endorsed stoves can significantly decrease the damaging effects of wood burning, it’s doubtful whether the majority of people already using woodfuel will take advantage of the technology.

Is Wood Burning Sustainable?

When questions about the sustainability arise, two things come to mind: deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. Burning wood does emit greenhouse gases, but simply stating that fact is misleading. The trees would have emitted those greenhouse gases when they died anyway. That’s the simple reality of trees. But young trees actually absorb carbon dioxide. This cyclical nature of woodburning technically makes using woodfuel neutral.

But the only way woodburning is truly neutral in terms of carbon emissions is if all the trees that are cut down are replaced with new trees. And tree growth is an incredibly slow process. Even if foresting companies literally planted a new tree for every tree they cut down, those new trees won’t be old enough to be absorbing carbon dioxide for some time. This creates spikes in greenhouse gas emissions which can affect the climate.

In terms of deforestation, there are parts of the world that are more logical for wood burning than others. Large parts of Canada and the Northern United States are densely populated with trees and have very small human populations. If foresting is done smartly, by cutting down sick and dying trees and leaving a diverse array of trees behind, then these areas of the world could stand to increase their woodburning production.

It’s important to consider where you’re obtaining your wood. If the wood you use to heat your home has to travel a very far way then all of the resources gone into harvesting the wood, transporting it, packaging it, makes its environmental impact much larger. If the wood you’re using comes from a personal woodlot or a local source, the environmental impact is much lower.

Pellet Stove The Answer?

Wood burning it’s a perfect energy source. But there isn’t one. Every energy source has some sort of negative effect on the environment at some point of its production. Even though wood fuel or biomass fuel technically has the potential to have a “neutral” carbon footprint, it’s important to know that it’s not as simple as that.

One growing trend in the biomass fuel arena is the use of a pellet stove.  A pellet stove uses pellets typically made of sawdust and wood scraps instead of large dry logs. All you have to do is deposit the pellets into the stove’s hopper and they will be disbursed periodically into a burn pot. The pellets are incinerated at such a high heat that they don’t create the same smoke or ash emissions that wood does.

The EPA doesn’t even track the emissions of pellet stove because there are so few of them! While woodburning adds pollution to the air, the best pellet stoves are more efficient and cleaner. Pellet stoves produce high amounts of heat and do so with very little effect on the environment.

But that’s just if we’re considering the impact the pellet stove makes on the environment when it’s used in your home. It’s important to remember that in order to make the pellets, often times large factories are built that release a large amount of carbon dioxide. Plus, these pellets aren’t manufactured everywhere. In fact, they can be hard to come by. Odds are if you’re buying pellets they probably had to be shipped a long way which decreases their overall green rating.

Final Thoughts

It’s clear that there are no simple answers. Every energy source has its pros and cons and consumers must think hard about what energy source is best for them. But being a conscious consumer of energy is a huge step toward taking care of our planet. Most people blindly stumble through life just consuming whatever energy source is most readily available.  By thinking about your lifestyle, your local resources and your surroundings, you can make the best decision for you and the planet.

If you live in a rural area with ready access to local firewood and you are able to invest in a new EPA approved efficient wood burning stove, then wood burning would be an excellent choice!

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