Smoke billows from smokestacks and a coal fired generator at a steel factory in the industrial province of Hebei, China. Researcher Vaclav Smil argues that steel, concrete, ammonia, and plastics are "four pillars of modern civilization" that require large amounts of fossil fuels to produce, and so will make efforts to quickly wean the world from fossil fuel difficult. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

When burning wood to generate energy makes climate sense

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Smoke billows from smokestacks and a coal fired generator at a steel factory in the industrial province of Hebei, China. Researcher Vaclav Smil argues that steel, concrete, ammonia, and plastics are "four pillars of modern civilization" that require large amounts of fossil fuels to produce, and so will make efforts to quickly wean the world from fossil fuel difficult. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

The world cannot afford to miss carbon-reducing opportunities during this critical era, when the transition to renewable, clean energy is still in its infancy compared to the dominance of fossil fuels. This effort is complicated by the fact that society still has to find a way of removing existing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it underground or in other forms. Without an understanding of when wood energy makes climate sense, it will be more difficult to deploy advanced technologies like bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS) for making sizable contributions to global greenhouse gas reduction targets. If technologies such as these cannot go forward, then there will be hard decisions to make on how else to meet our climate objectives.

The first step to thinking about the use of wood as a fuel source that can combat greenhouse gas emissions is to understand its role in energy production. From the perspective of managing a nationwide electrical grid, wood energy can be used as a “dispatchable” power supply—that is, an on-demand energy resource capable of being supplied to the electrical grid at any given time, complementing intermittent renewable energy sources like wind and solar. In the mid-to-long run, the availability of bulk energy storage and the expansion of nationwide transmission networks could help to address spikes in demand or lags in the supply of power from intermittent sources (Golombek, Lind, Ringkjøb, and Seljom 2022). Small modular nuclear reactors, hydrogen, or other advanced technologies could also someday help to provide reliable power in times when the wind does not blow or the sun does not shine.

References

Cornwall, W. 2018. “Natural gas could warm the planet as much as coal in the short run.” Science. June 21. https://www.science.org/content/article/natural-gas-could-warm-planet-much-coal-short-term.

Drax. 20219. Press release: “Drax sets world-first ambition to become carbon negative by 2030.” December 10. https://www.drax.com/press_release/drax-sets-world-first-ambition-to-become-carbon-negative-by-2030/.

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Werner Rhein
Werner Rhein
3 months ago

I’m a proponent of the use of biomass, especially wood gasification for more than 50 years.

Mainly for the combined production of electricity and heat.

Lately, it becomes more and more the link between the intermittent sources of solar and wind energy production.

Keep up the good work, except do not promote more nuclear energy production. We have already over 1600 metric tonnes of highly radioactive waste, on this earth, and nobody has a real solution to what to do with it, for the next 100 000 years.

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