Friday, November 21, 2008

Preventing Deforested Moonscapes - Pt I

When electricity becomes too expensive, unreliable, or rationed, many people will very likely turn to wood to meet their heating and cooking needs. Before coal, oil, or natural gas, wood served as the predominant cooking and heating fuel for thousands of years. Wood can be obtained locally in many places, is familiar to most people, can be used with existing infrastructure such as fireplaces and woodstoves, and works during blackouts.
The available alternatives to wood will determine it's attractiveness as a heating and cooking fuel. People in my area, Oklahoma, often heat and cook with natural gas. In other areas of the country, such as the Northeast, heating oil is more prevalent (36% of households in 1997). So wood fuel could predominate in some areas of the country, where wood is common, or where electrical failures are more prevalent and other fuels are expensive or rare.
I've become more concerned with this issue as I notice that many respected peak oil awareness leaders are using wood stoves to personally prepare for a future with less fossil fuel energy. This strategy is valid and sensible for many reasons, and probably necessary in some parts of the country, but I think we should also examine the downside of using wood as a primary fuel source, and examine ways to mitigate the problems associated with burning wood. As the peak oil vanguard, we need to be very clear in what we advocate.
The Problem with Wood Fuel

Burning wood causes particulate pollution, which is directly related to medical problems such as asthma, cancer, chronic bronchitis, and decreased lung function. According to the EPA, changing out 1 inefficient woodstove is equivalent to taking 7 diesel buses off the road. At least 75% of the 15 million of the woodstoves in America are inefficient and do not meet current health standards for preventing particulate pollution. Wood smoke also contains toxins such as dioxin, benzoene, and toluene.

Wood use in rural areas, in the middle of sustainably managed and privately owned forests and farms, is one thing. But if our urban residents have to rely on wood fuel, cities could become unbearable. If transport were limited, people would be forced to gather firewood wherever possible. City residents would be inclined to cut down trees on private property as well as in public parks, isolated wilderness areas - anywhere trees could be found.


Widespread use of wood fuel could very well result in increased particulate pollution, asthma and allergy flares, health problems (especially for medically fragile people), loss of shade, increased ambient temperatures, eroded topsoil, duststorms, and barren, ugly cities.

And all this could happen within a generation of an energy peak, if not sooner.

Fragile Electrical Grid and Financial Crisis

Just as the peak oil community warns the world of the downside of the energy peak, other voices are warning that the electricity grid has become outdated and unreliable due to decades of underinvestment. As peak oil arrives and there is less energy available, and less money available, maintenance of the electrical grid will get pushed back - until a fire in a substation, or a key transformer fails, or what-have-you problem that causes another regional blackout. Many third world countries experience rolling blackouts, or periods when electricity is only available for certain parts of the day. We might not be too far behind.

The current financial crisis, and accompanying recession, also plays a part in the problem. As a larger part of the population becomes poor, utility cut-offs will drive more people to use wood for fuel. And wood stoves have also proven to be a popular strategy among many people preparing for peak oil - if you have some land, you can meet your own needs without the grid. Even if you don't, you can stock a cord of wood and be independent from the grid until you need to re-stock. But what seems to be a great strategy for independent living, when adopted on a mass scale, or inappropriate areas, could wreak havoc with our forests, our health, and our climate.

So even though oil isn't usually directly used for heating and cooking (except for heating oil, which is very common in the Northeast US), I believe that the advent of peak oil, combined with the financial crises currently underway, will contribute to a major shift, at least regionally, to using wood for cooking and heating. And the advent of peak natural gas, at a somewhat later date, will seal the deal.

History and Scope

If we estimate that the last time Americans used wood as the primary heating and cooking fuel was in 1900, there were about 76 million people in America, mostly a rural population - and the forests had already been degraded. The forests had been steadily destroyed ever since the arrival of the Europeans, to clear land for farming as well as for the use of the wood, and the forests have not recovered decades after wood ceased to be the main fuel source for the country.

There are currently over 300 million Americans (four times the number in 1900), mostly concentrated in urban areas, and the US population is projected to grow to 420 million by 2050. Not only would trees be needed to fuel our heating and cooking fires, but forests would also be cleared to make way for more domestic agriculture. Where is all that wood going to come from?

Many people have written about the importance of eating local, organic food. We also need to think ahead to a time of unreliable/expensive/rationed electricity and fossil fuels - when it becomes difficult to heat our homes and cook our food without burning wood. We haven't had this situation in American urban areas in two or three generations.

But if the electrical grid begins to fail, from lack of maintenance, from inability to obtain fuel sources, from disasters such as ice storms and hurricanes - we will return to such a time. If a significant portion of people become too poor to pay their electric and natural gas bills - we will return to such a time.

I hope our needs can someday be met with a reasonably priced, renewable, widely available power source. Wind power, hydropower, geothermal power, and solar power combined may come close, but they have a long, long way to go (they comprise less than 15% of US electricity generation, with hydropower as the vast majority) time is short, and there are limiting constraints to their effective capacities without some kind of power storage/battery system.

The grid may not begin to fail for a long time, if ever. People may try to rely on other sources of cooking and heating energy, such as propane, coal stoves, or charcoal grills. We may experience a revolutionary buildout of wind and solar power to run our electrical grid. Still, I think we should begin to think about the possibility of a massive increase in the use of wood for heating and cooking in many regions of the country. So how do we prevent our country, especially urban areas, from turning into treeless zones? How do we decrease the amount of particulate pollution, and the serious health problems that can come with it, that would result from a shift to wood?

Part II will discuss potential solutions to this problem.


TheCrone said...

Here in Perth, Western Australia (A first World country) we experience rolling blackouts in Summer. The Grid here cannot cope with the high demand for electricity driven airconditioning. Temperatures regularly go over 40 here in Summer.

Chile said...

Hausfrau, it's amazing how often you write about the problems that are on my mind but that I haven't researched and written about. This exact issue figured into our decision-making process in determining where to look for a place to buy. In fact, we just discussed this on our walk this morning when it was a "nippy" 56 degrees before dawn. The desert will have problems, for sure, but excessively cold winters are not one of them. And we get enough sunshine to use solar cooking almost year-round. We have plans to make a rocket stove for use on our property eventually, fed by fallen branches and fruit/nut tree prunings.

Looking forward to Part II.

Lewru said...

I am so right there with you, Frau. This is something I've wondered/worried about in the past, too. Deforestation is a huge problem in many parts of Africa. When I was in Senegal in 1999 there had been a move to switch from wood to propane in big outdoor tanks. This was in an urban area but the deforestation that had already occurred was terribly evident.

I wonder, though, about the Tree of Heaven. It's an incredibly fast growing species that becomes practically invasive. I wonder if there are similar trees that would provide a subsistence amount of wood...Although this just leads us right back into the problem of air quality and particulate matter and asthma...Not a pretty picture.

TheCrone said...

Just realised that you guys work on a different temperature scale in the US. 40 degrees over here is about 104 for you guys.

We can get Summer temps of 43/44 which is around 110 degrees.

Terry said...

-It has more wood (lignin) than wood does.
-Charcoal made from hemp has as much energy per pound as coal.
-Charcoal is safe and clean.
-An acre of hemp yields five tons or more, and grows in four months.
-Hemp crops replenish the soil.
-The hemp grown can be used for a lot of other things besides fuel.

Kermitsmom said...

Hemp will be good especially as a biofuel feedstock but I digress. I heat mostly with a Pellet stove- and 4 seasons of experience in the suburbs lead me to conclude, like a woodstove- it's not a scalable solution for everybody.(I really like it tho)
My 2 cents:
cook with solar more, super insulate and downsize dwellings and we need the epa to dump a couple of 10 million dollar prizes fora cleaner and more efficient wood and pellet stove designs.
If oil gets back up to 100/bbl as it well could next year or certainly by 2011- many folks will be cutting down anything to burn in old polluting woodstoves- so maybe a tax credit to incentivize scrapping the old gross polluters once the designs are improved a bit too.

Jen said...

This topic came up a while back at a meeting of our local permaculture guild, and one person mentioned the usefulness of coppicing for this purpose. This, in combination with rocket stove technology, seems like one fruitful avenue to explore. Thanks for raising this important issue.

Anonymous said...

I have been mulling this very point over myself. I think I may link to your post and comment on my own about it, and the dilemmas we face in our area. Hopefully that's OK with you! Lewru's comment regarding what has happened in Senegal hits pretty close to what I am worried about here.

Hausfrau said...

Thanks to everyone for the comments! I'm working on the follow up ...

TheCrone, we have had rolling blackouts here in California, but maybe not to the same extent as in Australia.

Lewru, I would be so fascinated to read more about your work in Senegal!!

Chile, I hope we can inspire some debate and discussion about this topic!! This ranks just third on my list of concerns after staying out of war and feeding ourselves.

Terry, Kermitsmom and Jen - thanks for the suggestions. Will have to look more into hemp, haven't considered that much so far.

TFHS - Of course! Raise awareness as much as possible!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post Hausfrau! Ripple Effect analysis is absolutely vital as we move forward through the Long Emergency -and I absolutely applaud your extolling us to caution.

I'd like to share some biomass experiences lately from my life. Last weekend I was at a strategic planning retreat and we ran a fireplace in the common room for about 16 hours of burn time. In that time we burned almost a half face cord of wood and we never felt much warmer unless you sat on the hearth... the fireplace also drew more cold air in than it heated. Many, many homes have these inefficient "pleasure" fireplaces.

Compare that to either a new generation soapstone wood stove (12 hours on a double armload of wood)or a masonry stove. Better yet a small gasifier co-gen unit like we've built that would produce significantly more heat through radiant hot water heating as well as powering the home on not much more wood. The gasifier can also be run on virtually any carbon source -from corn stalks to switch grass to Guinea fowl manure if it is pelletized. Northern cities will need to follow the Scandinavian model and go to district heating fed off large co-gen units. Minneapolis has one that heats/powers down town on wood harvested within 100 miles of the plant. Power on a 100 mile diet for several hundred thousand people! I am a huge fan of sustainably harvested biomass as a very real piece of our Solution Pie.

Your caution is very well placed - and we must use it to help our communities switch to new generation solutions to battle the Big Scary New Generation problems. Failure to do so on this issue and our landscape will look like Haiti.

Sorry for the post sized comment!

Gasifier info can be found here:

and here:

WhoOwnsTheAir said...

Great essay! Check out this site on wood smoke and air pollution: