Wood: Dirty to Clean Fuel and National Energy Security

Editorials have a strong influence upon its readers as most take their words for it. The Kuensel editorial ‘Burning Less’ (18 July 2016) reflected the old narrative that use of wood for fuel is bad for environment. However, there is today a new narrative that wood as a source of energy can be clean and green. For example, a think tank Worldwatch Institute in 1981 first came out with the report, Wood: An Ancient Fuel with a New Future. In 2013, The Economist magazine carried a feature story, Wood: The Fuel of the Future. The World Bank in a blog in 2015 talked of Old Fuel for a New Future: The Potential of Wood Energy.  

Some 350,000 years ago, man discovered fire. He learnt to cook food in open fire. The open hearth fire generates smoke with heat efficiency (ratio of heat transferred compared to heat generated) of less than 10%. Over 2 billion people in developing countries still use this ancient technology. In developed countries, cooking over an open fire may be limited to outdoor camping. In the past 300 years, coal, oil, gas and electricity have replaced wood as source of energy. In the USA, for example wood met 75% of the nation’s energy needs in 1870, 25% in 1900, and 2% in 1972.

In developing countries fuelwood is maligned and denigrated as a dirty and inferior fuel. However in developed countries new energy markets are being created for wood in the form of solid biomass, pellets, briquettes and chips as a clean and locally available source of energy. Europe in 2012 consumed 13 million metric tons of wood pellets. Globally, the annual wood fuel trade is valued at US $ 7 billion. Wood, like fossil fuels, can be used for production of different types of fuels (solid, liquid and gaseous) and generation of different kinds of energy (electricity, heat and power) needed by households, industrial, and transportation sectors.

The modern airtight wood burning stoves (bhukhari) technology is 60-80 % efficient compared to 10% for the open fire.  About 8% of homes in the USA now use wood as a secondary source of heat, and over 1.5 million wood stoves are sold every year. One third homes in Austria use wood as the main form of home heating. The revived interest in wood in rich countries is driven by primordial connection to fire and flames, rising cost of fossil fuels and electricity, and cheap or free wood from a wide range of sources.  As a Bhutanese, we know that one of the nicest places to be during the winter is in front of a fire place.

Fuelwood collection by poor people was often cited as a major cause of deforestation. Many observers predicted in the 1960s and 1970s of an impending fuelwood crisis. However, the ‘fuel wood crisis’ predicted never happened. The predictions were later understood to be an outcome of a limited and erroneous understanding of the dynamics of fuelwood systems. People obtained wood from many supply sources outside forest lands such as trees planted with agricultural crops, fruit orchards, shrubs and bushes, and wood wastes from sawmills . The large scale deforestation in the world is a result of forest lands lost to urbanization, agriculture, cattle ranching, illegal logging and cash crop plantations.

Fuelwood has many environmental benefits. First, it is a carbon neutral and renewable resource. Second, it has low carbon footprint because it is sourced and consumed locally.  Third, indigenous renewables reduce import dependency, and contributes to energy mix diversification and national energy security.

Energy security is defined as ‘the uninterrupted availability of energy sources at an affordable price’. Due to people moving up the energy ladder, 92% of Bhutanese households in urban areas use Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG) for cooking, and so are more and more rural households.  LPG is a clean, convenient and portable fuel, and has a high heating value. Unfortunately, it is an imported item, and heavy dependence on import fuel is a significant energy security issue. Adoption of LPG has been possible due to high price subsidy by as much as 55 to 60% provided by Government but the subsidy quota is under pressure from more people switching to it. Its supply and distribution also face risks from high transportation costs and road blocks within the country.

With the Electricity for All goal, Bhutanese homes even in remote and isolated locations are lighted. Electricity is increasingly used for cooking and heating homes but high and rising power tariff will be a disincentive in future. The tariff in 2002 was Nu. 0.75 per kWh, and it is today Nu. 1.28/kWh for first 100 units (Block 1), Nu. 2.45/kWh for 100 to 300 units (Block 2), and Nu. 3.68/kWh for more than 300 units (Block 3), translating to price increase of 71% for Block 1, 227% for Block 2, and 391% for Block 3. Households in regions with cold winters or hot summers are already struggling to pay monthly electricity bills which now run in the thousands of Ngultrum. From energy security point, electricity is also vulnerable due to technical failures such as power ‘outages’ (black outs and brown outs) caused by grid or generation plant malfunction. Wood can be an important back-up power.

The national forest cover is 80.89%, thus the country sits on a large reserve of wood based renewable energy. Nationwide, only 0.31 million m3 of wood on average is removed annually against the theoretical sustainable harvest level of 14 million m3. Sustainable harvest level or annual allowable cut (AAC) is the wood volume permitted to be harvested within a one year period to ensure the sustainability and productivity of forest. The growing stock of our national forest which is the volume of all living trees is estimated at 529 million m3. In banking term, our wood extraction every year is equivalent to drawing only 2.22% of the total accrued interest amount of Nu.14 million for the year. There is over supply of wood to go around. Leaving forests to nature is not sustainable forest management as overcrowding of trees results in growth of trees with poor form that is tall, thin and susceptible to pests and diseases, forest fires and poor habitat for birds and wildlife. Further, trees are major users of water. It is not good for both ecology and economy.

The forestry share to GDP was a mere 2.64% in 2014. The economic potential of our national forest is grossly under realized. Presently, lack of technology, innovation and affordability come between wood being a dirty fuel and clean fuel. Since 1985, a smokeless stove program is ongoing for rural households in the country. Without harm to forest cover, wood fuel use can have many positive economic benefits such as creating markets for wood from national forests and community forests, attract forest investments and new technology, stimulate efforts in sustainable forest management and provide employment and income. We are all looking at the higher branches but not seeing the low hanging fruit.

Contributed by

Dr. Phuntsho Namgyel

Bhutan-eForest Group

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