Is wood the greatest untapped source of renewable energy in North America?

Dan Henry of Hearth & Home Technologies believes the answer to that question is a big 'yes' and he made an impressive case for wood pellet fuel at the 2009 Sustainable Energy Expo. His bold statement...

According to the U.S. Forest Service there are approximately 360 million dry tons of wood available annually in the U.S. A typical home requires 3 tons for heating. "That means we could heat 100 millions homes in our country."

This is not a new technology. There are currently 1 million homes heated by wood pellets, a product made from wood and wood scraps. The wood fiber is compressed into small pellets that resemble hamster food, making it easy to deliver. But these little pellets pack a big BTU punch (about 350,000 BTU's per cubic foot).

According to the Pellet Fuels Institute, that makes the fuel comparable to gasoline in terms of its efficiency to deliver heat (about twice the efficiency of ethanol).

Wood pellet technology is interesting in that it is one of the few renewable sources of "clean" energy (in quotes because wood burning is only clean if highly controlled) that specifically addresses U.S. heating needs.

For the most part, heating technologies on display at events like the Sustainable Energy Expo (where I shot this video of Dan Henry) tend toward efficiency -- preheating air or water using solar, more efficiency furnaces, on-demand water heaters, etc. All of these are great and can significantly reduce our heating demand, but right now most all of our fuel stocks are non-renewable -- gas, oil, and propane.

Rarely do you see a technology that addresses the actual fuel stock for heating. In the U.S. heating of homes accounts for about 40% of total home energy consumption (electricity is about 60%). No matter how many solar panels or wind farms we get, these clean technologies will never address our massive need for heating fuel.

But if we were to begin to use our forests as a source of fuel many questions arise, I think, about our ability to manage those forests sustainably. Yes, I agree forest fires are not a good thing (they are part of nature, but we just can't afford to have such massive CO2 dumps given our current over-carbonized atmosphere). And I do think the clearing of timber for firebreaks could indeed be an excellent source of fuel.

But I wonder how quickly the "sustainable management" of a forest would get reduced to privatized land rush for the next great heating fuel. If we treated our trees the way we treat our oil, it's difficult to imagine that the forests could remain in tact for very long.

Is wood a sustainable source of energy?
Hearth and Home Technologies says 100 million homes can be heated sustainably with wood pellets.