Burn Wood? This Is Environmentalism?

cost of renewables - Tom ShepstoneTom Shepstone
Natural Gas NOW


Is it environmentalism to suggest we burn wood? The Alliance for Green Heat seems to think so, as it ignores the obvious CO2 benefits of using natural gas.

Earlier this week I was forwarded an e-mail suggesting I burn wood because it was “low carbon, renewable and local.” It was from a group called the Biomass Thermal Energy Council, a member of the Alliance for Green Heat. I’d never heard of either organization until then. The basic pitch was to sign up for a webinar to learn more about an innovative wood stove that could complement solar panels on someone property. The friend who forwarded it to me thought it richly ironic and opined that “tree-huggers may implode” at the thought they should now burn wood instead of loving it.

It was one of those laugh out loud lines for which my friend is well known, but, nevertheless, I found the e-mail quite intriguing on two fronts. First, the choice to burn wood is as rural and redneck as it gets, and being a redneck agrarian myself, I’m for it. I like cutting trees, love wood fires and grew up in a home where we had one of those old classic kitchen stoves that could burn wood. Burning wood has great nostalgic appeal to me. What really interested me, though, was how wood could be low carbon. That just didn’t seem right. So, I checked it out.

I decided to investigate the Alliance for Green Heat and see what they had to say. They’re a tiny organization funded by an assortment of forest industry types and others. Interestingly, at the top of the funding heap is the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority. Empire State ratepayers and taxpayers, it appears, are paying out to encourage the burning of New York’s forests to save the climate or something. Still, notwithstanding this delicious irony, the Alliance has a really nice web page on wood stoves, which outlines some of the choices available on the market.

I naturally gravitated to the most expensive wood stove, of course, with all the bells and whistles. It’s automated and has a neat name; the RSF Delta Fusion, which sounds like it belongs alongside the starship Enterprise. I followed the link to learn more and ended up at a page with this:

Burn Wood

Still puzzled, I read further to find this:

Heating with firewood means heating your home using the natural carbon cycle. The fire releases the solar energy stored by the wood as carbon. Other fuel options —such as oil, gas, and coal— are all known as fossil fuels because they come from deep within the earth. When they are burned, it is this old unburied carbon that gets released into the atmosphere thereby increasing the total level of carbon dioxide. Whereas burning wood simply releases the same carbon dioxide the trees used to grow, burning fossil fuels adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, a result which has been linked to global warming, climate change, and the unusual weather we’ve seen in recent years. Not only can a clean-burning RSF fireplace heat your home more efficiently, it also allows you to heat your home with a lower environmental impact than any other fuel option. A wood-burning RSF fireplace leverages the natural carbon cycle to heat your home and using wood means burning less fossil fuel, emitting less greenhouse gas, and promoting a healthier environment.

Bearing in mind that I’m all for burning wood, I found this explanation more than a little self-serving and had the distinct feeling I was being hustled. It was back to Google and it took less than 30 seconds to find this German web page and this chart:

Burn Wood

Yes, wood is the worst fuel to burn from a CO2 perspective, according to the Germans and, if you can’t trust the Germans on renewables, you can’t trust anyone we’re told. The chart is also accompanied by a table with same information that puts an asterisk next to wood and offers this explanation (emphasis added):

Fuel is not equal to fuel – at least if we consider carbon dioxide emissions. Burning of lignite emits nearly 100 % more carbon dioxide with respect to the energy content than burning of natural gas. Even natural fuels such as wood or peat have high specific emissions, if they are not used sustainable. Hence, deforestation has a high impact on climate change. On the other hand, if we only use as much wood as can grow again, it is carbon dioxide neutral because it binds as much carbon dioxide during growing as is emits during burning.

The asterisk is, too, accompanied by a note indicating wood is “not sustainable used without reforestation.” So, what we learn is that wood is worse than lignite (used widely in Germany) and lignite or brown coal is roughly 100% worse than natural gas. We also learn wood is not sustainable without reforestation, which is to say that, if we tried to meet the anything more than a tiny part of the world’s energy needs with it, it would be an utter disaster. Like everything else energy-wise, wood is but part of the answer, which means, of course, that natural gas remains the best single option for lowering CO2 emissions on any scale that matters. Who would have guessed it?

Yet, I’m remain drawn to the wood stove. The idea of making tree-huggers choose between burning trees or burning up the planet, as they like to put it, is just so appealing. I also like the looks of those old wood stoves like the one in our kitchen so many years ago:

Burn Wood

A stove like the one that used to be in our kitchen

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