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Wood fuel: a natural, local energy source

Energy savings, care for the environment, sustainable resource management, not forgetting home comforts. All this can be provided from biomass and in particular wood fuel. A brief overview of the energy source of the immediate future.

It is a topic of daily conversation. In the media, among colleagues and with family. Our energy consumption model is leading us up a blind alley. Despite the large reserves of fossil fuels, gas and oil, still remaining, these will be exhausted in a few years. Moreover, they are the cause of significant climate change, the initial impact of which is already being felt. In short, it is high time to switch to renewable energy sources in order to ensure nothing less than… our survival. Europe has set a target of obtaining 32% of energy consumed from renewables by 2030. And biomass features high in the European figures for achieving this goal.

What is biomass?

Biomass is simply the name given to all the material of plant or animal origin found on the planet. Organic and plant waste from animal and arable farming and biodegradable household waste are also categorised as biomass. 

In short, any plant or animal product, by-product, residue or surplus product can be processed in a variety of different ways. In particular to produce food, materials and… energy. Biomass is the oldest fuel used by man: when we discovered fire, we used biomass for the first time to provide light and heat. 

Biomass is classified as either dry (for example, wood) or wet (organic waste, plant waste, etc.). Each type is processed differently using specific techniques. 

Biomass for energy production

Biomass is used in particular to produce heat and electricity. Dry biomass is most frequently burned directly and this is referred to as wood fuel. Wet biomass, for its part, is fed into a digester (a large closed tank) in order to produce biogas, a gas with a high calorific value, via a process of biomethanisation (anaerobic fermentation of the material). These large plants provide electricity to the grid. Heat, on the other hand, is used locally via underground networks. Many places in Europe already have facilities of this type.

Wood fuel in the spotlight

The renewable energy figures for 2016 (EurObserv’ER barometer 2017) speak for themselves as far as its use for heating and cooling in the European Union is concerned: solid biomass provides 79.3 % of renewable energy, and this increases to 87% if all biomass is taken into account. In comparison, solar energy accounts for only 2.1 %.
 

The use of wood in Wallonia and in France is a major contributor to these results. It accounts for more than 50% of the renewable energy produced, and this figure is set to increase in the future. Our countries must meet the targets set for the proportion of renewable energy in the total final energy mix (heating, electricity). In France this figure is currently 16% (with a target of 23% in2020), and in Belgium 8.7 % (2020 target 13%). As well as contributing to these targets, biomass, and wood fuel in particular, have many financial and environmental benefits which make them ideal sources of energy.
 

Financial benefits:

  • Biomass is widely available in Europe: we have forests, grassland and fields in abundance. 
  • Biomass offers an opportunity for European companies to become leaders in innovative technology with a view to ending dependence on fossil fuels.
  • The use of natural local materials as sources of energy strengthens the agriculture and forestry sectors and offers them the chance to diversify.
  • Local use of biomass supports the local economy and creates sustainable local jobs that cannot be relocated.
  • Wood fuel is a local source of energy not subject to price volatility.
  • Household energy bills are lower. As well as creating a cosy atmosphere, wood burning is cheaper than oil or gas heating. Moreover, this renewable energy source is easy to store.


Environmental benefits:

  • A neutral carbon balance: the planting of new trees offsets the CO2 released into the atmosphere by the burning of wood. The carbon is captured again as the tree or the plant grows. The carbon balance is therefore neutral. Heating with wood is thus an integral part of a “natural cycle” significantly reducing our environmental footprint and our impact on global warming.
  • Currently, 25% of households in Wallonia and 1 out of 2 French households have wood burning stoves. If all heating systems using fossil fuels were replaced by modern wood burners, the impact on total CO2 emissions would be greatly reduced. 
  • The production of local biomass requires much less grey energy than fossil fuels, which have to be obtained from ever deeper wells in increasingly distant locations. And this has a financial impact: the cost of oil production tripled between 1998 and 2013!
  • Contrary to received wisdom, the use of wood for heating is good for forests. Take the example of the south of Belgium where the area of woodland has increased by 25 % over the last 100 years and now covers 30% of the territory. The permanent increase in woodland acreage is proof that the timber felled in Europe has been replanted and, like biomass as a whole, wood is permanently being replaced.

Conclusion

In Europe, we are lucky. We have an abundance of biomass resources. This gives us the opportunity to face up to the challenges of climate change by using new methods of energy production much more in tune with environment, such as wood fuel. Figures for the performance of Stûv modern wood burners, inserts or stoves, for logs or pellets are impressive, with outputs of the order of more than 80%, a world away from the open hearths of old. We can now enjoy the benefits of biomass via our own “wood-fuelled” generator, with a cosy atmosphere as an added bonus. 

Note, too, that in France there is support available (CITE (tax credit for energy conversion), éco-PTZ (0% interest eco-loan), éco-subvention Anah (national housing agency eco-grant), etc.) to encourage the installation of wood burners by qualified professionals. Always worth knowing in terms of combining savings, comfort and care for the environment.