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

Wood energy is modern and growing fast yet is the overlooked renewable energy giant of the world despite having some clear advantages within the portfolio of renewable energy sources, a new study 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 has found.

A modern wood fuel, pellets 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, a new study by the Joint UNECE/FAO Forestry and Timber Section highlights.

When asked how humanity can achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 – “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all by the year 2030” most associate renewable energy with solar PV, wind turbines, geothermal plants, heat pumps, tidal power plants or other power technical solutions.

Yet wood energy, the renewable energy giant of the world, is overlooked or dismissed as unmodern despite having some clear advantages within the portfolio of renewable energy sources.

A new study entitled “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 highlights that wood energy is modern and growing fast.

For instance, the study finds that wood pellets 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.

Forest industry investments and jobs, especially in the mechanical wood processing industries such as this sawmill in Sweden, are primarily found in rural areas. Wood pellet production provides additional jobs and value-creation by utilising residuals.

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.

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.

Rubberwood waste from a wood processing facility in southern Thailand destined to become fuel for local energy production or feedstock for wood pellet 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 percent of total energy supply. Wood energy continues to be the leading renewable energy source in Europe, accounting for about 45 percent of primary energy from renewable sources.

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 study duly notes that 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.

First test of the BioLite II camp stove arguably the world's smallest portable biomass-fired combined heat and power (CHP) unit.

The BioLite II camp stove arguably the world’s smallest portable biomass-fired combined heat and power (CHP) unit.

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 percent.

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