Wood emerges as the new renewable energy source

Interesting article from Bloomberg dealing with the re-emergence of a 19th century energy source. Yes, folks, it's none other than wood. Supposedly wood is considered carbon-neutral, since trees absorb carbon dixoide during their life, and this has made wood attractive as a fuel source.

Power companies are burning more trees because the renewable fuel can be cheaper than coal and ignited without needing permits to release carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas blamed for global warming.

Vattenfall AB of Sweden, Germany’s RWE AG and American Electric Power Inc. of Ohio, the biggest coal-burner in the U.S., have switched a few plants over to wood and more are planned. So far that hasn’t driven up paper prices or strained forests, which absorb carbon dioxide in photosynthesis.


Using biomass for power and heat -- mainly from poplar, willow and pine trees -- grew by 25 percent during the past two decades, according to the International Energy Agency, the Paris-based adviser to 28 oil-consuming nations such as the U.S.

Industrialized nations drew 4 percent of their energy from biomass in 2006, the most recent data available from the IEA. That was the equivalent of about 1.1 billion barrels of oil.

Chips of wood stumps and branches, heated to 400 degrees Celsius (750 degrees Fahrenheit) at the Novus furnace, are as efficient as coal and cheaper: European Union rules don’t require carbon-dioxide permits because the trees absorbed a like amount of the gas before harvest, making them carbon-neutral.

I never realized that wood was such a big component of energy usage in Europe. The article cites the UN's research which supposedly shows that biomass and wood contribute more power than wind, solar, or hydropower in Europe.

The biggest loser from all this will be coal (however, note that coal should still be popular since, unlike Europe, most developing countries and even America right now do not penalize emission of carbon dioxide.)

I'm not sure about the sustainability of wood as an energy source. Someone—the wood suppliers—need to plant a lot of trees if everyone starts chopping down trees. The forestry industry has a largely sustainable model when it comes to consuming trees for paper or construction wood (housing, furniture, etc) but energy usage will likely require far greater number of trees.

I wonder if the struggling forestry companies in Canada and America may be able to capitalize on wood as a fuel source. It's probably uneconomic* in North America without a carbon tax (or something equivalent) but I wonder if they can export to Europe.

(* Wood, as well as other sources, can be economic without a carbon tax if the cost of alternatives, such as coal, oil and natural gas, increase significantly.)


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