Current production of woodfuel from plantations makes only a small contribution to energy requirements, although it is very important in some localities and countries. Plantations currently supply 5 percent of woodfuel production and woodfuel are about 15 percent of total energy used in developing countries. In practice woodfuel is a residue and by-product system, as it includes leaves, twigs, branches as well as stems of both trees planted for industrial and non-industrial purposes, plus industrial wood waste. Woodfuel is only part of a larger bio-energy system that includes agrofuels and municipal by-products.
About a third of plantations in developing countries are devoted to non-industrial uses, mainly woodfuel. The bulk of these are in Asia. Production from these plantations are likely to double over the next 20 years, even with little expansion in area. In addition there will be increased woodfuel by-products coming from wood using industries. The situation is less positive in Africa; a few countries actually have projected declines in plantation-based woodfuel production.
Traditional plantations have been the least successful method of supplying bio-energy to the rural households. Agroforestry systems, which can include woodlots on farms or communal lands, have proved more useful because they integrate closer to the needs of the people. Multipurpose trees, for example, are able to produce a range of needed benefits, of which woodfuel is but one. Nevertheless, there are examples where the traditional plantations have been very successful, such as when providing charcoal to local industries or fuel to power plants.
Rural energy plantation programmes have suffered from a number of failures. Many failures have resulted from not appreciating of the complexities of bioenergy supply and demand, of not taking into account social aspects and people's needs, as well as poor programme structures. Occasionally market factors have also led to poor outcomes for woodfuel. Many of these could be overcome by more careful development of policies, by making local people the centre of planning and implementation, and by careful integration with other sectors and methods of providing bio-energy.
The environmental outcomes from planting trees for woodfuel should usually be positive or have minimal effects. Nutrient depletion from collection of leaves, twigs etc. or long-term coppicing, poses a risk, particularly on lower fertility soils. Planting nitrogen-fixing trees helps maintain the nitrogen status of the site.
In general hardwood species have greatest potential for woodfuel and they should preferably coppice readily, have nitrogen-fixing ability and be multi-purpose species. The fuels they provide also need to be easy to handle and dry, have a high calorific value and burn without toxic smoke or sparks. Many species, from shrubs to larger trees, fit these requirements. Actual selection depends on what can be grown easily on the site and being acceptable by the users. In agroforestry situations silviculture will tend to be simple and adapted to the skills and resources of the rural people. Care in the establishment phase is very important. Industrial users should be able to adopt more intensive silviculture.