Warming your home with wood-an old idea becomes new again

wood fire

In our quest for renewable energy, attention has shifted to our nation’s forests. Forest-based energy has the potential to be “carbon-neutral.” The carbon released into the atmosphere when trees are burned is taken back out of the atmosphere when new trees grow.

In the Northeast, forests and woodlots cover two thirds of the land from Maine to Pennsylvania. Energy analysts are looking to these forests, not for lumber or paper, but as a source of woody biomass to be burned for heat and electricity or converted into liquid fuel.

A number of states, including New York, have developed renewable energy goals that assume forests will play a role in our energy future. However, there is concern among scientists that expectations are based on unrealistic assumptions about available forest resources.

“Using forests for energy is probably using them for their least valuable use,” says Charles Canham, a Forest Ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies.  “Our forests are much more valuable for other purposes.  That’s not to say that we can’t develop a sustainable biomass energy industry, it’s just that the amount of our current energy depend that you could meet is really small – probably less than 2% of what we currently use.”

The potential for using forests as fuel varies widely by region, so there will be no one-size-fits-all model. But, in targeted applications, the heat generated by locally-grown biomass does have the potential to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and support local economies.

Ongoing scientific oversight will be needed to ensure forest-based energy is exploited sustainably, so that we protect the other vital services that forests provide.

Produced in collaboration with WAMC Northeast Public Radio, this podcast originally aired on February 16, 2012. To access a full archive of Earth Wise podcasts, visit: www.earthwiseradio.org.

Photo: Toolmantim

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

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