The virtue of woodfuels is that they are a truly renewable resource. With careful and considerate management, wood can be harvested and regrown in a highly sustainable manner. Wood burning is considered to be a carbon neutral activity, as when the wood is burnt it releases carbon which can then be recaptured by trees and other plants to be used in their growing cycle.
Compared to other burning activities, this is a much more sustainable resource. Fossil fuels such as coal and oil are in short supply, and these cannot be simply replenished in a short matter of time as they form underground over millions of years. When burning fossil fuel, carbon is released but this is much more difficult to reabsorb into plants' natural growing cycle.
All fossil fuels took millions of years to form underground and it is now accepted that “peak oil” will soon be reached (the point where supply will rapidly decline and hence cost will escalate).
Processing and transportation required in the woodfuel supply chain uses a small amount of energy (typically no more than 2%) meaning at the point at which it is finally consumed it remains well above an 80% saving on green house gases over fossil fuel, often even over 90%.
This woodfuel is converted into highly efficient pellets or woodchip, and a modern woodfuel installation is highly efficient (at around 90%).
If everyone converts to wood burning won’t we run out of trees to burn?
With careful management of potential sources, there is sufficient fuel to support growth. Many UK forests are currently under-managed and could provide an increased supply of woodfuel. Left unmanaged, trees mature and growth slows; as does the rate at which they absorb carbon. Fallen trees and debris will hinder new growth, so it is far better to manage the forests by growing, cutting down and putting to use, then re-growing to maximise CO2 absorption. Opening spaces in new growing woodland allows sunlight in, enabling a wider range of plants, insects and animals to thrive and increasing biodiversity.
The Forestry Commission estimates* that an additional 2 million tons of wood could be harvested from currently under-managed UK woodlands by 2020, representing half of the available, currently unharvested, material in English woodlands which is at 4 million tons. Increased demand for wood fuel will offer a stimulus to landowners and the forestry industry to better manage UK woodland and create work.
In utilising the natural resource we will create much needed rural community jobs in forestry management and fuel handling. Farmland is being converted to less-intensive energy crop production, further improving the environment by creating nature-friendly environments that are carefully managed and not intesively farmed with often harmful chemicals.
Standards for sustainable forestry have been revised. These cover the whole life cycle including cultivation, emissions from processing and transportation. Other considerations cover environmental impact, workers and local residents' rights, and a system of monitoring best practice. In general, this new industry associated with wood fuel is set to grow to cope with new biomass boiler fuel demand and care for forestry and environments.
*Forestry Commission “A Woodfuel Strategy for England”