Wood Fuel: What If . . . ?

I sometimes get asked – and it is a fair question – ‘what would happen if everyone did what you are doing?’. One of my main aims with the Green Cottage eco-renovation project is to find solutions which are replicable at different levels. Solutions which can only ever apply to a few people in special situations are not really going to help us achieve the kind of transformation we need to, although of course everyone’s situation will be special to a degree.

When it comes to the use of wood as a fuel, the issue is quite complex and there are quite a few different factors at play.

At the time of writing, there is a reasonably plentiful supply of wood fuel available. This comes mainly in the form of seasoned logs which are sold typically by farmers and tree surgeons sourced from waste wood from their own arboricultural operations. Most local authorities’ parks and countryside services produce large quantities of waste wood annually, a lot of which is still chipped and used as a mulch or covering for paths etc. Some is even taken to landfill.

So at present there is some slack which remains to be taken up in the wood fuel market.

However, the wood fuel supply is likely to begin to come under pressure in the not-too-distant future. Not only are more and more people buying wood stoves – for ecological reasons, for warmth security reasons (they work during a power cut) or for financial reasons (the rising price of fossil fuels) – but across the country, planning permission is currently being given for dozens of biomass power stations and smaller Combined Heat and Power plants. These plants burn a LOT of wood, so much in fact that many of these new power plants are planning to import their biomass feedstock from abroad.

All this means that at some stage, log fuel may well become either a lot more expensive, or unavailable at any cost. This would be a real shame, and this is where the principled ‘green socialist’ for want of a better phrase comes out. I am normally fairly apolitical when it comes to these things, but a number of principles are at stake here:-

– log fuel is by its nature a low-energy, low-carbon renewable fuel. It takes very little energy to prepare (chopping and stacking for seasoning) and most of its energy footprint is in the harvesting of the logs and the distribution of the log fuel. Other forms of biomass fuel such as wood pellets and wood chip have a much higher embodied energy, because they need to have a quality grade for use with high technology furnaces.

– log fuel is typically produced and distributed locally, whereas higher grade biomass fuel typically is not.

– log fuel is ideal for tackling fuel poverty, a condition which is commonly found in 100 year old solid walled terraced brick town houses. This type of property has a chimney, a good thermal mass, is typically insulated by two more properties on either side, and in short is perfect for the installation of a modern, clean-burning, high efficiency wood stove room heater, if not a stove which also heats the hot water and runs the radiators. Experience has shown that even a simple room heater can cut gas heating bills by two thirds.

– wood ash is a perfect fertiliser for growing fruit in an urban setting, as it contains potash which is the main ingredient in any ‘fruit fertiliser’ which you can buy.

Other types of house such as detached and semi-detached may be more suitable for other types of alternative heating such as heat pumps, which are more expensive than wood stoves and so more appropriately suited to the socio-economic status of such householders . New houses should of course be built to require little or no heating.

I do fear that there is a danger that locally produced wood resources may be diverted to feed large biomass power stations, which in my humble opinion would be a Bad Thing. There is certainly a place for fast-growing energy crops such as willow, poplar or even miscanthus grass to feed biomass plants, but local log fuel should have its own supply chain and used to heat local, relatively fuel poor homes.

A rise in the price of log fuel would not be all bad, however: at present most local authorities have areas of woodland which are currently unmanaged due to lack of funding fir proper woodland management programmes. Proper management can not only result in a woodland becoming productive in terms of wood fuel and other wood products, but thinning and other management techniques are also better in terms of biodiversity opportunities. A higher price (and therefore value) for wood fuel and other wood products could provide the necessary funding streams to enable proper business plans to be formulated for the sustainable management of currently marginal woodlands.

Besides, I never want to have to resort to burning coal, that would most definitely be a retrograde step 😉