Thursday, 1 November 2012

Burning wood - carbon friendly energy explained

Thursday 1st November
After a stormy and very wet night

Several times I have noticed the same car travelling very slowly along the back road. I can see it across the fields from my land. Today, with the aid of my binoculars, I managed to find out what was going on. For leading the way, about 20 yards ahead of the car, was a Jack Russell. Yes! You've got it. This is someone's way of taking their dog for a walk!
I've still not got to the bottom of the other car which drives up and down beeping its hooter. If the air is very still I give a concerted yell to SHUT UP. Twice it has worked! Although it's about a kilometre away, I know that I can hear my guinea fowls calling from there, so I reckon my voice can easily travel that far on a light westerly breeze.

I'm not sure what the point of these two stories is, I just wanted to tell them.

Onto the serious stuff.

When I was at University, quite a few years ago now, I became very aware of environmental issues. This was at a time when you were considered mildly bonkers if you spoke about the greenhouse effect, global warming, acid rain, water conservation or heavy metal pollutants!

How much things have changed, though how little things have changed too.

When I used to do a lot of conservation work, we seemed to be endlessly removing hawthorn scrub which was encroaching on more specialist habitats. Passers by would always ask how chopping down trees could be an act of conservation.

Today, I burn wood for energy (of course, I never did this when I lived in London as that was a smokeless zone). And people ask me how sending all that smoke up the chimney and burning all those trees can fit with my environmental beliefs.

So here goes. My attempt at an explanation. (No complicated chemistry, I promise!)

Basically, we need carbon in the air, but not too much of it.

If you think about it, most living things are made of carbon. In effect you, me and the trees are storing carbon, keeping it out of the air until we go up in smoke.

So, again, how can burning wood be carbon friendly? All that smoke, all that carbon going up the chimney.

The answer is to look at the dirtier choices:

If we burn coal or oil, that's basically carbon which has lain buried deep inside the earth for millions of years. If we didn't extract it, it would stay there causing no harm to anyone. But as soon as we bring it to the surface and burn it, up goes all that carbon into the air.

Wood, on the other hand, has spent its whole life taking carbon OUT of the air and converting it into ... well... wood. So when we burn it, all we are doing is putting that carbon back where it came from. We are making use of all the sunshine that has been stored by the tree during its life to give us energy.

Of course, this does not work if we go chopping down vast swathes of virgin forest, but if the wood has been grown deliberately for purpose and if it is replaced by young trees, then all we are using the trees for is to store the sun's energy and carbon until we need it. And while they're storing all that carbon (think how much a tree weighs), then it's not in the air.
Of course, there's the added benefit of the beauty each tree provides and the habitat it offers.

So there you have it.
In a nutshell, burning wood is carbon neutral.

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