By Don C. Brunell
With Russian President Vladimur Putin cutting off natural gas supplies, Northern Europeans are scrambling and reverting to firewood to heat their homes, boil water and cook. It is rapidly becoming a hedge against skyrocketing energy prices and uncertain fuel supplies.
Cuts in shipments of Russian natural gas, used to power electricity grids and heat homes is the biggest factor driving rates higher. Suddenly, Europeans are facing firewood scarcities and bulging orders for wood furnaces.
West Berliners are staring at more than double the year-over-year energy costs. As a result, they are dusting off coal- and wood-burning ovens that once served as insurance against the Russians targeting energy supplies during the Cold War.
“Firewood is the new gold.” Franz Lüninghake, 62, a systems administrator in Bremen, Germany, who has a wood-burning furnace on back order. His estimated energy bill for the next year is $4,500 — up from $1,500 in 2021, the Washington Post reported.
Wood was the main energy source worldwide until the mid-1800s. Today, it is an important fuel in many developing countries and rural communities.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), two percent of the total U.S. energy consumption was wood and wood wastes in 2021—-the bulk of which was generated by lumber and paper mills. Many of those plants generated excess electricity which was added to our power grids.
When wood is burned to produce energy, the carbon dioxide (CO2) that is released into the atmosphere is the same CO2 that would be released if the wood decomposed, so there is no net addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, the Washington Forest Protection Association reports. Also, forests are replanted, and the new trees continue the cycle of absorbing and storing CO2 from the atmosphere.
Because many western U.S. forests—particularly those on public lands—are plugged with diseases, dead, dying, and down trees, there is a high volume of wildfire fuels. In 2016, California alone reported 66 million dead trees strewn about its lands posing a grave wildfire danger.
Last August, London’s Daily Mail reported wildfires raging worldwide released a record amount of carbon dioxide (2.7 gigatons), a leading ingredient in the greenhouse gas that contribute to climate change. That was more CO2 than produced in the European Union.
Removing wildfire hazards must be a high priority. In northeastern Washington, some forests are being cleared and “what use to be” unusable logs sent to modern mills manufacturing laminated beams. Other waste wood is carted off to power plants.
Avista’s Kettle Falls generating station takes “slash” (wood debris remaining from logging or thinning) and produces enough electricity for 37,000 homes.
For example, if slash piles from a 250-acre logging site near Deer Lake had been burned, they would have emitted over 400,000 pounds greenhouse gases. Avista reduced the release to 5,400 pounds.
In 2020, EIA estimated wood was used in 10.8 million U.S. homes (mostly in fireplaces and pellet stoves). Firewood is particularly important in rural areas.
However, smoke from wood burning stoves in urban areas is a suspected carcinogen. Researchers in Greece and Switzerland told The Guardian: “That home wood burning is the single biggest source of small particle air pollution in the UK, producing three times more than road traffic, despite just 8 percent of the population using wood burners.”
Even new wood burning stoves meeting the “ecodesign” standard still emit 750 times the amount of tinier cancer-causing particulate pollutions than a modern large urban delivery truck (HGV).
Wood burning may help bail us all out this year. However, Europeans will be reminded that natural gas, as a fuel, is more abundant, less expensive, healthier, and more environmentally friendly than firewood burned in home fireplaces.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.