When electricity becomes too expensive, unreliable, or rationed, many people will very likely turn to wood to meet their heating and cooking needs. Before coal, oil, or natural gas, wood served as the predominant cooking and heating fuel for thousands of years. Wood can be obtained locally in many places, is familiar to most people, can be used with existing infrastructure such as fireplaces and woodstoves, and works during blackouts.
The available alternatives to wood will determine it's attractiveness as a heating and cooking fuel. People in my area, Oklahoma, often heat and cook with natural gas. In other areas of the country, such as the Northeast, heating oil is more prevalent. So wood fuel could predominate in some areas of the country, where wood is common, or where electrical failures are more prevalent and other fuels are expensive or rare.
I've become more concerned with this issue as I notice that many respected peak oil awareness leaders are using wood stoves to personally prepare for a future with less fossil fuel energy. This strategy is valid and sensible for many reasons, and probably necessary in some parts of the country, but I think we should also examine the downside of using wood as a primary fuel source, and examine ways to mitigate the problems associated with burning wood. As the peak oil vanguard, we need to be very clear in what we advocate.
The Problem with Wood Fuel
Burning wood causes particulate pollution, which is directly related to medical problems such as asthma, cancer, chronic bronchitis, and decreased lung function. According to the EPA, changing out 1 inefficient woodstove is equivalent to taking 7 diesel buses off the road. At least 75% of the 15 million of the woodstoves in America are inefficient and do not meet current health standards for preventing particulate pollution. Wood smoke also contains toxins such as dioxin, benzoene, and toluene.
Wood use in rural areas, in the middle of sustainably managed and privately owned forests and farms, is one thing. But if our urban residents have to rely on wood fuel, cities could become unbearable. If transport were limited, people would be forced to gather firewood wherever possible. City residents would be inclined to cut down trees on private property as well as in public parks, isolated wilderness areas - anywhere trees could be found.
Widespread use of wood fuel could very well result in increased particulate pollution, asthma and allergy flares, health problems (especially for medically fragile people), loss of shade, increased ambient temperatures, eroded topsoil, duststorms, and barren, ugly cities.
And all this could happen within a generation of an energy peak, if not sooner.
Fragile Electrical Grid and Financial Crisis
Just as the peak oil community warns the world of the downside of the energy peak, other voices are warning that the electricity grid has become outdated and unreliable due to decades of underinvestment. As peak oil arrives and there is less energy available, and less money available, maintenance of the electrical grid will get pushed back - until a fire in a substation, or a key transformer fails, or what-have-you problem that causes another regional blackout. Many third world countries experience rolling blackouts, or periods when electricity is only available for certain parts of the day. We might not be too far behind.
The current financial crisis, and accompanying recession, also plays a part in the problem. As a larger part of the population becomes poor, utility cut-offs will drive more people to use wood for fuel. And wood stoves have also proven to be a popular strategy among many people preparing for peak oil - if you have some land, you can meet your own needs without the grid. Even if you don't, you can stock a cord of wood and be independent from the grid until you need to re-stock. But what seems to be a great strategy for independent living, when adopted on a mass scale, or inappropriate areas, could wreak havoc with our forests, our health, and our climate.
So even though oil isn't usually directly used for heating and cooking (except for heating oil, which is very common in the Northeast US), I believe that the advent of peak oil, combined with the financial crises currently underway, will contribute to a major shift, at least regionally, to using wood for cooking and heating. And the advent of peak natural gas, at a somewhat later date, will seal the deal.
History and Scope
If we estimate that the last time Americans used wood as the primary heating and cooking fuel was in 1900, there were about 76 million people in America, mostly a rural population - and the forests had already been degraded. The forests had been steadily destroyed ever since the arrival of the Europeans, to clear land for farming as well as for the use of the wood, and the forests have not recovered decades after wood ceased to be the main fuel source for the country.
There are currently over 300 million Americans (four times the number in 1900), mostly concentrated in urban areas, and the US population is projected to grow to 420 million by 2050. Not only would trees be needed to fuel our heating and cooking fires, but forests would also be cleared to make way for more domestic agriculture. Where is all that wood going to come from?
Many people have written about the importance of eating local, organic food. We also need to think ahead to a time of unreliable/expensive/rationed electricity and fossil fuels - when it becomes difficult to heat our homes and cook our food without burning wood. We haven't had this situation in American urban areas in two or three generations.
But if the electrical grid begins to fail, from lack of maintenance, from inability to obtain fuel sources, from disasters such as ice storms and hurricanes - we will return to such a time. If a significant portion of people become too poor to pay their electric and natural gas bills - we will return to such a time.
I hope our needs can someday be met with a reasonably priced, renewable, widely available power source. Wind power, hydropower, geothermal power, and solar power combined may come close, but they have a long, long way to go (they comprise less than 15% of US electricity generation, with hydropower as the vast majority) time is short, and there are limiting constraints to their effective capacities without some kind of power storage/battery system.
The grid may not begin to fail for a long time, if ever. People may try to rely on other sources of cooking and heating energy, such as propane, coal stoves, or charcoal grills. We may experience a revolutionary buildout of wind and solar power to run our electrical grid. Still, I think we should begin to think about the possibility of a massive increase in the use of wood for heating and cooking in many regions of the country. So how do we prevent our country, especially urban areas, from turning into treeless zones? How do we decrease the amount of particulate pollution, and the serious health problems that can come with it, that would result from a shift to wood?
Part II will discuss potential solutions to this problem.