Let's not put the last log on the fire

clearcut forest

In an attempt to wean the nation from coal—an unhealthy source of energy that drives global warming, several policy groups have suggested switching to wood. Existing coal-fired power plants could be converted to burn wood with relatively little cost and expense. And trees have the benefit of being a renewable resource.

Wood emits less energy than coal when burned, but converting forests into fuel requires a vast amount of standing stock. Can existing forests support our appetite for energy? And at what cost?

An analysis of New England’s potential for wood-based fuel paints a bleak picture. In every state, if sustainable practices were employed, existing stocks of wood were inadequate to provide a real alternative to coal. Under best-case-scenarios, the switch would satisfy only 1.4 to 5.5% of the region’s current energy use.

“Probably less than 2% of what we currently use, in terms of fossil fuel, could be met from sustainable additional harvests of forest biomass in New York or in the Northeast,” says Charles Canham, a forest ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies.

A similar analysis for the Southeast suggests that when power plants switch from coal to wood, there is actually an increase in carbon emissions for 40-60 years. During this time, carbon loss from forests and forest soils is larger than the carbon that replanted trees are able to accumulate.

So, unless we want a barren landscape and higher prices for all forms of wood, we should look carefully before we endorse woody biomass as green energy.  It may not be wise to put another log on the fire.


Produced in collaboration with WAMC Northeast Public Radio, this podcast originally aired on March 7, 2012. To access a full archive of Earth Wise podcasts, visit: www.earthwiseradio.org.

Photo credit: PJ Petersen

Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies | Millbrook, New York 12545 | Tel (845) 677-5343

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