In the news: Cutting down trees is such a fuelish notion

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In the news: Cutting down trees is such a fuelish notion

Postby ToneWood » Tue Nov 27, 2012 9:33 pm

Interesting article in the Opinion section of The Times (Sat. Nov. 17th) about how burning wood might not be such a good idea, compared to say coal or gas, from a carbon/carbon dioxide perspective: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/opinion/c ... 603011.ece

[For those without a Times subscription (e.g. me) or a paper copy (not me), somebody typed it all out here: http://www.navitron.org.uk/forum/index. ... #msg214390 ]

The gist of it is that burning wood & other (mainly imported) "biomass" (olive kernels, peanut husks, etc.) produces more "carbon" than coal, which in turn produces more carbon than (natural) gas - and "carbon is carbon". In the process, wasting billions of pounds of British taxpayers' & utility bill payers' money - while producing more rather than less carbon. America on the other hand has reduced its carbon output while reducing energy bills (primarily by fracking for gas). The author, Matt Ridley, points out that a tree left to grow and eventually rot is better for the environment than a tree cut down and replaced with a new one - however, he completely neglects to consider that old woods might be allowed to expand and new plantations started if wood became a more popular fuel with suitable incentives/market conditions (although he rightly points out, it provides an incentive to deforest "the world's lungs", the rainforests). Oddly, he also overlooks the issue of fossil fuels being a finite resource that will eventually run out and which are increasingly imported from dangerous locations.

I was going to say that "I don't have an axe to grind" on this - but regular readers know that isn't true, I have several axes and a wheel on which to grind them :D. As I said it is an interesting and thought provoking article, it presents an interesting case/argument and contains some interesting and surprising facts, even if it is not (IMHO) thorough or balanced though. Definitely worth reading.
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Re: In the news: Cutting down trees is such a fuelish notion

Postby Peat » Tue Nov 27, 2012 10:22 pm

I listened to a radio 4 programme tother day discussing this. Can't remember which programme.

Importing timber from abroad to feed our power stations does seem pretty silly. Its not a particularly energy dense fuel for a start so transport costs would outweigh the transport of fossil fuels. I havent heard of any studies that look at how coppiced wood compares. I wonder how the willow that is grown on a short rotation for biomass compares. But anyway expecting to fuel old coal fired power stations on wood in this business as usual way is unrealistic. The amount that'll need to get burnt to power all the modern dodads and thingumy bobs is stupedous, not to mention industrial processes. And fracking is just an awful idea!
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Re: In the news: Cutting down trees is such a fuelish notion

Postby ToneWood » Tue Nov 27, 2012 10:46 pm

Yes, he reckons that by 2030 the plan is for us to burn 5x more wood than Britain currently produces!
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Re: In the news: Cutting down trees is such a fuelish notion

Postby Holzbob » Sat Feb 09, 2013 9:49 pm

The carbon content in bio fuels comes from the carbon dioxide the plant has consumed while growing. So when you burn it you are where you started.
Whith fossile fuels it is the same, the only problem is that man has managed to burn most of the carbon that has been stored in millions of years in just 100 years.
So when looking at carbon dioxide alone bio fuels are perfect.

Making eco-bilances is a difficult thing though: How do you compare a bit of carbon dioxide less against a bit of fine dust and some poisonous burning residues more?

In my area a lot of wood is let rotting in pulic parks, green areas and woods. Here the carbon dioxide is released without being used for heating purposes.
We try to grab this wood before it rots away and get about 50% of out heating this way.
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Re: In the news: Cutting down trees is such a fuelish notion

Postby robin wood » Sun Feb 10, 2013 10:44 am

Holzbob wrote:The carbon content in bio fuels comes from the carbon dioxide the plant has consumed while growing. So when you burn it you are where you started.
Whith fossile fuels it is the same, the only problem is that man has managed to burn most of the carbon that has been stored in millions of years in just 100 years.
So when looking at carbon dioxide alone bio fuels are perfect.

Making eco-bilances is a difficult thing though: How do you compare a bit of carbon dioxide less against a bit of fine dust and some poisonous burning residues more?

In my area a lot of wood is let rotting in pulic parks, green areas and woods. Here the carbon dioxide is released without being used for heating purposes.
We try to grab this wood before it rots away and get about 50% of out heating this way.


I agree with this point of view.

Burning wood is carbon neutral, if we frack the gas, burn the oil and coal we release the carbon that was locked away countless millennia ago. That will be fine for the earth, it was fine back then when the atmosphere was full of carbon and there was little oxygen, plants like a carbon rich greenhouse humans don't.

I get most annoyed by the idea of carbon offsetting, you know people and companies that burn their carbon and pay someone to plant a few trees which their theory goes will absorb the same amount of carbon they have just burnt in their car, heating system or transatlantic flight. The flaw in the argument is this, the carbon they released had been locked up for millennia, the carbon absorbed is locked up for the lifespan of the tree then released whether it is burned, rot's or is turned into furniture for a hundred years it will be released it is not equivalent to the original locked away carbon.

Finally I would question why the wood in the previous post is being left to rot. Often this is part of a sensible management plan. I have worked in several country parks where we had very rare invertebrates that survived on dead and decaying wood. 21st century man is a tidy beast which makes life hard for these small creatures, we would leave our dead and decaying wood specifically to aid these dead wood ecosystems and would be very unhappy if locals decided to help tidy up by taking it home to burn.
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Re: In the news: Cutting down trees is such a fuelish notion

Postby simon » Sun Feb 10, 2013 10:36 pm

[quote="ToneWood"]

The gist of it is that burning wood & other (mainly imported) "biomass" (olive kernels, peanut husks, etc.) produces more "carbon" than coal, which in turn produces more carbon than (natural) gas - and "carbon is carbon".

I assume that the carbon produced by transportation of the biomass is included. Using local biomass which is the waste product of some other process is the way to go, not importing or growing a crop just to burn. Our local power station burns chicken litter, the stuff on the floor when they clean out the sheds.
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Re: In the news: Cutting down trees is such a fuelish notion

Postby Shankar » Sun Feb 10, 2013 11:05 pm

Burning locally sourced wood is part of the answer but I fear that without very radical change in attitudes or technological innovation on a massive scale (fusion) the human race is heading major catastrophe. Sadly I don't see that change happening. Even if we solve the energy problem we still have major shortages of food and mineral resources ahead of us. The whole planet seems to be hell bent on ever increasing consumption and GDP is the "be all and end all" of economic policy. The elephant in the room is POPULATION - either we limit ourselves or nature will do so for us. Depletion of resources will lead to war and famine and this will curtail/ reverse population growth. Mother nature will do what she has always done- we can either chose to play ball or bury our heads in the sand.

People always say "SAVE THE PLANET"- that is totally the wrong angle- what we need to worry about is not the planet but ourselves. We may (and probably will) pollute the world and wipe out half of the species including ourselves- give the Earth a couple of hundred thousand years and it will recover. We can destroy the biosphere but the Earth will endure and recover.

Sorry about the pessimism and slightly off topic rant. Go and carve for the end is neigh ;o)

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Re: In the news: Cutting down trees is such a fuelish notion

Postby ToneWood » Sun Feb 10, 2013 11:25 pm

I agree Shankar, World Population really is the elephant in the room. Nothing else really matters, nothing else will work if that is not addressed. And no government (other than perhaps China, which is moving away from it) or world leader is talking about managing and reducing the world human population, let alone do anything about it. There is one (quite dangerous theory if it is wrong) that if you help improve infant mortality in poorer nations, then people will naturally change to having smaller families (I believe that's part of Bill Gates charitable philosophy). However, if the smaller families are 3 or 4, rather than 9 or 10, the population still grows. Also, some of the "wealthier" (more indebted?) nations also have growing populations now, including the UK. We have more machines and labor-saving devices than ever before and consequently less need for "man power" (human head count) than ever before, yet the human population continues to grow and grow - to what end, for what purpose? Something will have to give eventually, whether it be disease, war or environmental break down.

Simon, One local farm with connections recently built a substantial facility to produce methane (supposedly a worse green house gas than CO2 if let into the atmosphere, as occurs in nature) for energy. Another local farmer did once explain it to me (there is some kind of subsidy scheme for it - but the installers just raise their prices to take it all apparently),I forget the details but I think the process involves a lot of cow poo from the herd and some sort of crop product/byproduct being fermented. Not sure how they are planning to use methane. They are pretty canny though, I am sure they have that all worked out.
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Re: In the news: Cutting down trees is such a fuelish notion

Postby Holzbob » Mon Feb 11, 2013 12:39 am

Counting new plantations of trees against the burning of fossile carbon is difficult: When you harvest an oak you get maximum 60% into boards for furniture use (hopefully long use), the rest will be burned or rot away and release the stored carbon content into the athmosphere.

Robin, the wood I talked about is not from any kind of a nature reserve but from the shrubs around here. It is not left lying around for a purpose but to save the cost of removing it ("tidying the place up"). Of cause insects and funghi would have found and used it nonetheless. There we are again with the difficulty of eco-bilancing: Burn it and save on burning fossile fuels or let it rot and give nutrition and shelter for insects in an increasingly catastrophic climate.
I think it is very important to reduce the overall impact on nature per individuum and stay happy with it to act as an example for others.

In Germany we now have our second Atomausstieg, the planned end of the use of nuclear energy. I expect though, that as soon the people are told that they should take the bike instead of their car, they start to become perfectly nurclear - friendly again. And the average age is rising so the bones ache more and many people have less and less to loose.
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Re: In the news: Cutting down trees is such a fuelish notion

Postby TonyH » Mon Feb 11, 2013 11:55 am

ToneWood wrote:Yes, he reckons that by 2030 the plan is for us to burn 5x more wood than Britain currently produces!


Quite possible, if we burn all the old pallets on which we have imported the rubbish we "need" from China :wink:
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Re: In the news: Cutting down trees is such a fuelish notion

Postby Billman » Thu May 30, 2013 9:56 am

I used to work for the MOD on Salisbury Plain - 30,000 acres of SSSI grass land plus numerous wooded areas that were planted to simuate Eastern Europe (the Cold War battleground). When large, but youngish, woodlands were cut down (as part of the management structure) the wood was chipped and sold off as bio fuel. Smaller trimmings wre either sold off to local contractors as firewood, or left as habitat for wildlife. Just before I retired they started to manage one of the large coppice areas, sadly located within a range danger zone, and so not accessible by the general public. The MOD, for all is sins, is one of the UK's largest landowners, and has one of the best management policies for conservation.

Each year Wiltshire Council, or their contractors, cut thousands of roadside trees down, chip them and leave the chippings in large unsightly heaps by the side of the road. Railtrack do the same next to railway tracks. Taking the chippings away, or removing the wood as logs for firewood is not cost effective - but across the UK how much wood is wasted in this way??

I do not know the figures, but I guess 50% of oil is used to make plastics - 95% of which end up as landfill. Most thermoplastics are polymers, long string molecules made from monomers, these can be extracted from plastics almost as easily as from oil - or the plastics can be used to create a diesel equivalent fuel. This technology is not new - I learned about it when a D&T teacher 30+ years ago ( the UK Plastics and Rubber Industry used to run courses for teachers) - yet we still dump most plastics.. We still use plastics where card or paper could be used - Safeways used to offer brown paper bags - when taken over by Morrisons they converted 100% to plastic.

As a planet we still cut down vast areas of woodland to make pulp for papermaking - each month I throw away a recycling box of junk mail (we do not get a newspaper) - despite a 'recycling' initiative, much recycled paper is still sent to landfill as the infrastructure is geared to virgin paper made from trees....

And don't get me started on the population explosion - as long as certain religions see contraception as immoral we do not stand a chance of keeping it stable, let alone reducing it... Maybe Child allowance in the UK should be on a reverse sliding scale - 100% for the first, 66% for the second, 33% for the third, 0 for the fourth and then reduced for any other children.... As long as the Welfare State props up large families we're sunk.... But I digress....

As an ex teacher, part of the solution should be education - if we can get it right for the next generation our children and grandchildren may have a chance... Personally we burn a mixture of fuels - some oil for the Rayburn (we are both in our 3rd age, and need a less labour intensive method), some coal, bottle gas for the hob (approx 40kg every two years) but 75% of our heating is wood - recycled, off cuts from the local furniture factory, garden trimmings (we have 3/4 acres over half of which was planted with trees 40 years ago) - even sawdust and shavings from the workshop... The wood burning stove in the hallway will get pretty hot just on a fill of old cardboard - enough to keep the hallway warm for an evening...
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Re: In the news: Cutting down trees is such a fuelish notion

Postby Brian Williamson » Thu May 30, 2013 11:04 am

ToneWood wrote:Interesting article in the Opinion section of The Times (Sat. Nov. 17th) about how burning wood might not be such a good idea, compared to say coal or gas, from a carbon/carbon dioxide perspective


I've just been and read the transcription of the original article. There's the germ of an acceptable view there (that burning biomass is not neccessarily a good thing) but also a lot of mis-information. There was three times as much woodland in 1800 as we have now? Really? I think you have to go back to before the Romans to find that situation.

The problem with biomass (I suggest; I'm no expert) is two-fold. Firstly, and he touches on this, importing material to burn is madness. If we're bringing in peanut husks and olive stones and such like to burn, then I can't see it making any sense.If we're burning stuff that's a left-over from imports for different reasons, then that is rather different. Though why we might be dehusking peanuts over here I have no idea.

Secondly, and he doesn't mention this, I believe that the ratio of carbon dioxide to methane varies according to how hot you burn your fuel. And these two gases have differing effects on the greenhouse effect. If this is a problem, then it should be a simple (!) matter of rigorous regulation of the practice. IAnd I think that this may be where the various environmental bodies have their doubts about burning biomass.

Where he goes way off track is to suggest that, since we produce more carbon for the same amount of energy by burning wood as opposed to coal, we'd be better off burning coal. This is rather akin to saying that, if you enjoy sitting in front of a log burning fire in your living room, you'd enjoy it even more if you threw a gallon of petrol on it.

Wood is already a part of the carbon cycle. Burning more or less wood just speeds the cycle up or down a bit. Burning coal. oil or gas is adding something to the cycle that wasn't there previously and changes the whole thing dramatically and, possibly, irreversably.

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Re: In the news: Cutting down trees is such a fuelish notion

Postby ToneWood » Thu May 30, 2013 6:45 pm

An idea that 2 different people have suggested to me in the last month or so: grow more trees (to absorb carbon dioxide) then cut them down and bury them ->" Carbon capture" the simple, cheap, natural way.

Assuming the buried trees don't break down giving off methane (an even worse greenhouse gas than CO2 apparently), the idea is just to leave them there indefinitely. Although not really an essential part of the above idea, both suggested that eventually it would just become coal (& perhaps natural gas?) -> renewed fossil fuel!

I don't know about the viability of this but the simplicity (& cheapness) of the idea greatly appeals to me.
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Re: In the news: Cutting down trees is such a fuelish notion

Postby Simon Hartley » Thu May 30, 2013 9:19 pm

ToneWood wrote:Assuming the buried trees don't break down giving off methane


That's one hell of an assumption! I would say this was pretty much inevitable; the only circumstances in which wood remains fundamentally intact is burial in a peat bog. The idea of trying to exploit that fact on a significant scale is horrifying. Although the simplicity and cheapness would no doubt appeal to some avaricious carbon-trading company.
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Re: In the news: Cutting down trees is such a fuelish notion

Postby ToneWood » Thu May 30, 2013 9:45 pm

Simon Hartley wrote:
ToneWood wrote:Assuming the buried trees don't break down giving off methane


That's one hell of an assumption! I would say this was pretty much inevitable; the only circumstances in which wood remains fundamentally intact is burial in a peat bog. The idea of trying to exploit that fact on a significant scale is horrifying. Although the simplicity and cheapness would no doubt appeal to some avaricious carbon-trading company.

Is it really horrifying? In what way? If you were to do it commercially, you'd either plan to capture & use the methane or not to produce it (e.g. I believe peat depends on wet acidic conditions - that took ~30 secs of research). Methane is the main component of natural gas and produces less CO2 than other fossil fuels when burnt. A local farm has recently built a large new facility specifically to generate methane - using a mixture of cow poo and crop waste. So it could be a v. profitable and worthwhile byproduct. You can use methane for heating, cooking, generating electricity and even powering vehicles.

Another byproduct would be more woodland.

Ultimately though, population management is the only real solution to saving the environment. There are too many people.
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