Burn Wood? This Is Environmentalism?

cost of renewables - Tom ShepstoneTom Shepstone
Natural Gas NOW


Is it environmentalism to suggest we burn wood? The Alliance for Green Heat seems to think so, as it ignores the obvious CO2 benefits of using natural gas.

Earlier this week I was forwarded an e-mail suggesting I burn wood because it was “low carbon, renewable and local.” It was from a group called the Biomass Thermal Energy Council, a member of the Alliance for Green Heat. I’d never heard of either organization until then. The basic pitch was to sign up for a webinar to learn more about an innovative wood stove that could complement solar panels on someone’s property. The friend who forwarded it to me thought it richly ironic and opined that “tree-huggers may implode” at the thought they should now burn wood instead of loving it.

It was one of those laugh out loud lines for which my friend is well known, but, nevertheless, I found the e-mail quite intriguing on two fronts. First, the choice to burn wood is as rural and redneck as it gets, and being a redneck agrarian myself, I’m for it. I like cutting trees, love wood fires and grew up in a home where we had one of those old classic kitchen stoves that could burn wood. Burning wood has great nostalgic appeal to me. What really interested me, though, was how wood could be low carbon. That just didn’t seem right. So, I checked it out.

I decided to investigate the Alliance for Green Heat and see what they had to say. They’re a tiny organization funded by an assortment of forest industry types and others. Interestingly, at the top of the funding heap is the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority. Empire State ratepayers and taxpayers, it appears, are paying out to encourage the burning of New York’s forests to save the climate or something. Still, notwithstanding this delicious irony, the Alliance has a really nice web page on wood stoves, which outlines some of the choices available on the market.

I naturally gravitated to the most expensive wood stove, of course, with all the bells and whistles. It’s automated and has a neat name; the RSF Delta Fusion, which sounds like it belongs alongside the starship Enterprise. I followed the link to learn more and ended up at a page with this:

Burn Wood

Still puzzled, I read further to find this:

Heating with firewood means heating your home using the natural carbon cycle. The fire releases the solar energy stored by the wood as carbon. Other fuel options —such as oil, gas, and coal— are all known as fossil fuels because they come from deep within the earth. When they are burned, it is this old unburied carbon that gets released into the atmosphere thereby increasing the total level of carbon dioxide. Whereas burning wood simply releases the same carbon dioxide the trees used to grow, burning fossil fuels adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, a result which has been linked to global warming, climate change, and the unusual weather we’ve seen in recent years. Not only can a clean-burning RSF fireplace heat your home more efficiently, it also allows you to heat your home with a lower environmental impact than any other fuel option. A wood-burning RSF fireplace leverages the natural carbon cycle to heat your home and using wood means burning less fossil fuel, emitting less greenhouse gas, and promoting a healthier environment.

Bearing in mind that I’m all for burning wood, I found this explanation more than a little self-serving and had the distinct feeling I was being hustled. It was back to Google and it took less than 30 seconds to find this German web page and this chart:

Burn Wood

Yes, wood is the worst fuel to burn from a CO2 perspective, according to the Germans and, if you can’t trust the Germans on renewables, you can’t trust anyone we’re told. The chart is also accompanied by a table with same information that puts an asterisk next to wood and offers this explanation (emphasis added):

Fuel is not equal to fuel – at least if we consider carbon dioxide emissions. Burning of lignite emits nearly 100 % more carbon dioxide with respect to the energy content than burning of natural gas. Even natural fuels such as wood or peat have high specific emissions, if they are not used sustainable. Hence, deforestation has a high impact on climate change. On the other hand, if we only use as much wood as can grow again, it is carbon dioxide neutral because it binds as much carbon dioxide during growing as is emits during burning.

The asterisk is, too, accompanied by a note indicating wood is “not sustainable used without reforestation.” So, what we learn is that wood is worse than lignite (used widely in Germany) and lignite or brown coal is roughly 100% worse than natural gas. We also learn wood is not sustainable without reforestation, which is to say that, if we tried to meet anything more than a tiny part of the world’s energy needs with it, it would be an utter disaster. Like everything else energy-wise, wood is but part of the answer, which means, of course, that natural gas remains the best single option for lowering CO2 emissions on any scale that matters. Who would have guessed it?

Yet, I’m remain drawn to the wood stove. The idea of making tree-huggers choose between burning trees or burning up the planet, as they like to put it, is just so appealing. I also like the looks of those old wood stoves like the one in our kitchen so many years ago:

Burn Wood

A stove like the one that used to be in our kitchen

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21 thoughts on “Burn Wood? This Is Environmentalism?

  1. Tom,
    Another excellent article… well written, thoroughly researched, and attractively presented with compelling arguments, as well as good old common sense. As a Liberal & Left Wing follower of your posts, I can disagree with some things, particularly some of the political twists, but absolutely agree with your fact-based science showing that natural gas and fracking are a net plus for the environment, and will help to bridge us to a future less reliant on fossil fuels. I might add that this is a point of view which sensible liberals (Obama, Gov. Brown, Hillary etc.) agree. The disinformation, fact-free activism, and outright cronyism & corruption are sadly just as true with the fractivists as they have been with some from the opposite end of the spectrum, such as the tobacco industry, those opposed to teaching evolution and science, and others. I am heartened to see that many in the oil industry, the corporate world, and even in our military are now openly stating that man-made climate change, particularly spurred by coal and wasteful fossil fuel consumption, is a danger to us all. While there is no quick fix on the horizon from alternatives, that is all the more reason why natural gas is the essential bridge to the future. Thank you for your good work.

  2. Highest CO2 emissions source out there. Higher than Brown Lignite Coal which so called Green Germany burns

  3. NYSERDA is just another cuomo propaganda appendage. Every day that sadistic hack is not behind bars is an affront to justice.

    NYC should switch to wood burning for all its energy. Will await the report on how that goes…

  4. No mention was made of the particulate emission from wood burning. Wood burning in fireplaces or wood stoves is frequently banned in cities, such as Denver, Colorado, with frequent weather inversions, which trap pollution over the city.

    • As is all things green, the ‘dark side’ is never mentioned, like the fact that wood smoke contains many pollutants. From, believe it or not, the EPA:

      Smoke forms when wood or other organic matter burns. The smoke from wood burning is made up of a complex mixture of gases and fine particles (also called particle pollution, particulate matter, or PM). These microscopic particles can get into your eyes and respiratory system, where they can cause health problems such as burning eyes, runny nose, and illnesses such as bronchitis. In addition to particle pollution, wood smoke contains several toxic harmful air pollutants including: benzene, formaldhyde, acrolein and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

      More: https://www.epa.gov/burnwise/wood-smoke-and-your-health

  5. When Northeastern U. S. people burn wood — even if it’s inefficient on a CO2 for heat basis — they’re simply releasing carbon from an area which will go on recapturing it. Forests in this area have been banking net carbon for some time. Even if humans don’t use much of the wood for heating, the carbon is going to be gradually released anyway, every time a tree falls and starts rotting.

    Burning fossil fuels releases carbon from a source that won’t gather it back, at least not without human effort at figuring out carbon sequestration. That’s the argument for wood being carbon neutral, and for fossil fuels being not.

    It’s not as far-fetched as it might sound. Redneck wood-burning America has a much smaller carbon footprint than Yoko down in the Dakota, burning fracked gas.

    On the other hand, wood flunks against most alternative heat sources when it comes to other forms of air pollution.

    • Yes; indeed it’s carbon that would be released by the deadfalls rotting anyhow (and real Susquehanna Countians know that there IS plenty of it rotting anyhow), but it’s not surprising that a jealous wannabe-fracer such as Mr. Shepstone likes to obfuscate away from that factor EVEN after implicitly admitting it earlier in his same diatribe.

  6. Wood stove that “used to be” in your kitchen? Why not no more?

    If you really like, as you claim to, to use such fuels that require a little work, you’d be getting your eminent-domaining buddy Constitution Pipeline to complete its job of stealing the trees from the Holleran/Zeffer PROPERTY (I understand they’re just rotting there now, a carbon-emitting-already 14 months after their first step – namely the felling – of stealing of them at gunpoint) and sell some of them to you as firewood. That would also provide some money into their coffers to help enable them to REPLACE those stolen trees with TRANSPLANTED ones bought from whatever WILLING landowners it might be able to find around the county.

    (That continues to be the minimum – together with getting your other buddy, Cabot, to build that water pipeline to Dimock – of what you must get your buddies to do if you want me to talk about defecting to your “side”).

    • Sounds like you don’t understand who makes the laws in this country tom. Try reading a civics book. Then give one to the hollerans.

      • How did that approach work out for your buddy Constitution in getting its pipeline approved in New York?

        And you don’t have a clue about what delivering the news to the Hollerans (which, it just so happens, I DO, every day now!) entails.

        • Why is that Tom? You are their mailman?

          In what way is the Constitution pipeline my buddy? Because I intervened in a different pipeline project Williams built in NYC?

          Let me know if you can figure out why the NYDEC waited until after the trees came down on that property to reject the Constitution pipe permit on earth day of last year Tom.

          • You obviously weren’t in Albany on a certain day, as I was, to witness the Hollerans, because if you had been, you’d already have the answer to your question about the timing.

  7. I second some of what grant cooper said. However where exactly have all the reasonable folks he speaks of gone? It is not like the former president Obama and say Clinton don’t know Al Gore and remember Al was PROUD of his daughter when she got arrested in a natural gas pipeline construction ditch last summer. Did he catching coal for that or did his daughter karenna who pals around with activists who have been lying to the press and millions of people for years?

    Where are the good reasonable people? Sleeping?

  8. From a mass balance perspective, the German article is right. Of course, the same mass balance can be applied to any fuel burnt to form CO2. So burning oil at the same rate that it is forming would be sustainable. Ditto gas. The trouble is, the respective carbon cycles are rather long – maybe several million years, rather than the 20-100 years for wood. We could always substitute a faster sequestration route. The trouble with doing this artificially is that the CO2 content of the atmosphere is so darned low! Meanwhile, natural sequestration by plants has an upper limit somewhere, set by the planets surface area devoted to plants. I still think orbital mirrors to intercept the sunlight and generate electricity would be a better engineering solution…

    • Steve, you’re the only respondent to have got the point. I find that sad. It is simple, wood is the only sustainable option for combustion that doesn’t involve significant change to the chemical makeup of the atmosphere. So think about it folks, unless you have enough land set aside to grow enough firewood to produce all of your energy needs, or have renewable alternatives, you’re not sustainable. Don’t hide behind political rhetoric.

      • Thanks Frank, but I can’t bask in your praise. My comments were based on the narrow interpretation of “sustainable” used in the article (i.e. negligible effect on the atmospheric CO2 content). Looking at energy generation more broadly, as the author does briefly partway through, wood cannot supply all our energy needs if we are to maintain our lifestyles and raise less-developed parts of the world to the same standards. However, although the best interim solution may be natural gas, it is finite (at some unknown value). Meanwhile wind/solar/wave etc. aren’t sufficiently intensive. Fission, fusion or something else entirely will be needed – unless somebody can convince me otherwise with proper engineering arguments rather than treehugger rhetoric?

  9. CO2 is not a green house gas.
    The rise in CO2 comes after the rise in temperature.
    The experts computer models are not accurate,

    What about all the other gasses released from burning wood?

    • Methane happens to be one of the other gases released by burning wood.

      “Biomass burning, largely resulting from the activities of man, accounts for between 20 and 40 million tonnes of methane emissions each year. Methane emissions arising from biomass burning are a result of incomplete combustion and huge amounts can be produced during large scale burning of woodlands, savanna and agricultural waste.”

      Methane emissions can be reduced from burning wood if combustion is complete though.

      “The uncontrolled way in which most biomass burning happens means that the only real route to reducing emissions from this source is to reduce the amount of burning itself. Some biomass burning is required if environments such as the savanna are to be retained, but it is the large scale destruction of forest areas for cash crop agriculture and urban spread which stand out as areas to be tackled.”

      “By making use of a renewable resource, like pine wood chips, and avoiding incomplete combustion, these biomass power stations are able to have a much reduced net greenhouse gas impact compared to equivalent coal, oil and gas fired power stations.”

      The methane gas released from burning wood can be captured and burned to produce power also.

      One thing about burning biomass is that like coal and natural gas it is not intermittent and unpredictable like solar and wind power.


      Switchgrass is an alternative to burning wood as a biomass source of energy. Electricity can be generated using a combination of switchgrass and coal which in turn lowers emissions.

      “Burning only 10 percent switchgrass with coal generates electricity with lower emissions (fewer pollutants) than burning coal alone.”


      • Don, once again… if you were to set up a series of bioreactors be they run by biomass and/or wastewater digestion, there would be protests against the construction of the infrastructure that transports the energy be it in a gaseous or electrical form.
        Forests would have to be carefully managed to prevent excessive erosion and resistance against invading parasites like the Emerald Ash Borer as an example. This could also put a kink in the development business since these extremely large wood lots have to be protected.

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