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Wood energy is no sleeping giant, say UNECE/FAO experts

Published: 24 May 2018

If we try to picture how humanity can “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all by the year 2030” (Sustainable Development Goal 7), solar panels, wind turbines, geothermal plants, heat pumps, tidal power plants or other technical solutions come to mind. But what about solid biofuels or, more specifically, wood energy? Wood energy is the overlooked renewable energy giant of the world, and the giant is not sleeping!

Wood energy is modern and growing fast. Wood pellets, made from compressed wood particles, are changing the way wood is used for heat and power generation in the UNECE region by virtue of their efficient combustion, convenience and the fact that they are more energy-dense than traditional firewood. The manufacture of wood pellets and their distribution supports employment in the UNECE region’s forest sector, often in rural areas where job opportunities are needed. This development has also provided market options for what had been low value residual wood products, such as sawdust, post-consumer wood and wood from harvest sites, which had often been seen as not having value and thus left in the forest or burned in the harvest area.

These are some of the findings of the study on “Wood Energy in the ECE Region: Data, Trends and Outlook in Europe, the Commonwealth of Independent States and North America” developed by the Joint UNECE/FAO Forestry and Timber Section, with the support of the Government of Finland, and the UNECE/FAO team of Specialists on Wood Energy.

The study sheds light on the current situation of wood energy, types of wood fuels used, major sources and users, public policy instruments that support (and hinder) its use, and how to sustainably source wood. Moreover, it provides an outlook on how current social, economic and political trends and developments may mould the use of wood for energy and its sustainable production.

In many developing countries, wood energy provides the majority of total energy supply and, surprisingly, in several developed countries, wood energy provides nearly 25% of total energy supply. Wood energy continues to be the leading renewable energy source in Europe, accounting for about 45% of primary energy from renewable sources. Data on wood energy can be found at www.unece.org/forests/jwee.

Policy measures to increase the share of renewable energy and decrease carbon emissions have played a strong role in the increased use of wood for energy and, together with the rapidly increasing oil prices at the beginning of this millennium, contributed to jumpstart a wider use of wood energy, particularly in Europe. Within the portfolio of renewable energy sources, wood energy has some clear advantages. It does not have the same limitations that other renewable energy sources have, as it is storable and will continue to provide energy even when there is no sun, wind, or when hydroelectricity generation potential is limited.

The use of wood for energy can have negative ramifications if not used properly. Wood energy can be a significant source of indoor and outdoor pollution if used inefficiently. The harvest of wood fuels can degrade forests if sustainable practices are not observed. Nonetheless, wood energy can be a very clean and sustainable fuel, if best practices are applied to sourcing, processing and combustion efficiency.  The use of improved stoves and fuels can reduce fine particle emissions from traditional open fireplaces by more than 95%. A UNECE/FAO video, “More Heat with Less Wood”, illustrating the “right” way to burn wood can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9z-EGVeKTrc  

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