They’re comin’ outta the woodwork, we tell ya! In light of the impending crash of most of the fuel types that keep our modern lives chugging along, energy and manufacturing companies high and low seem to be gearing up for profit-bearing alternatives. The Agence France-Presse recently posted on Grist.org that a number of logging operations throughout Europe and North America are being severely affected by the downturn in new housing construction and are expanding into the burgeoning wood pellet market.
So, what the hell is a wood pellet? According to PelletInfo.com, wood pellets are pill-sized, generally made from compacted sawdust from manufacturing waste, produce more heat than raw wood and can be used as a fuel for boilers and domestic heating stoves. The Pellet Fuels Institute mentions that the pellet fuel industry has also entered into large-scale commercial applications, providing heat and energy (via boilers) to schools, theaters, prisons, manufacturing facilities and farms. Both sites explain that wood pellets are almost carbon-neutral (98% emissions-free), thus having a trivial impact on the greenhouse effect.
Sounds pretty good! However, there always seems to be a seedier side to every exciting alternative fuel. Treehugger.com references a study from The Nature Conservancy, claiming that the destruction of grassland, rainforests, peatlands or savannas in countries like Brazil and the U.S., for purposes of general biofuel harvesting, released 17-420 times more carbon dioxide emissions than the fuels they replace. Such staggering numbers might point to various players in the industry striving only to make a buck, turning a blind eye to environmental impact. Looking at timber logging specifically, a more obvious problem must be assessed, that of large-scale clear-cutting. This destructive method of tree harvesting, still practiced by some of the biggest names in the lumber industry, not only lends creedence to the above-mentioned statistics but also suggests that if lumber for the housing industry, as well as various paper and wood products, declines enough, the material used to create wood pellets might step up from the factory floors and become the entire trees themselves, perpetuating this questionable system.
But interestingly, the Pellet Fuels Institute also briefly mentions that fuel pellets can also be made from various biomass alternatives other than wood, such as cornstalks, straw, wastepaper and even animal waste. Perhaps methods to efficiently collect said products might spring up and, combined with a lower percentage of fuel made of wood (preferably harvested ethically), a system of using biofuel pellets might become as sustainable as they are practicle to burn. Plus they just look so neat! Who wouldn’t wanna pick up a handful of these lil’ buggers and throw them on the fire?