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Chapter 6 Wood energy for the future: FAO's perspective

Wood energy policy and institutions
Wood energy resources development
Wood energy conservation and substitution
Opportunities in industry and commerce
Mature and emerging bioenergy technologies
Woodfuels trading and marketing
The future

The lessons of recent decades provide valuable signposts for new strategies, policies and tactics to steer wood energy development into the twenty-first century. There are now more institutions around the world capable of carrying such an agenda forward than at any time in history.

New factors and actors are constantly modifying wood energy scenarios, such as an increased emphasis on the growing importance of pro-environment regulations or financial mechanisms, and the many new industrial concerns that have sprung up around bioenergy development. Allowance must be made for these emerging trends. Skill and capacity levels in institutions and agencies need to be upgraded so that change can be managed with flexibility and confidence.

All who hold a stake in wood energy development should be in a position to define a common vision of future needs and goals, to identify practical ways and means to measure and achieve them, and to blend their efforts with those of other relevant stakeholders. These steps rely as much on attitude as on technical, financial or structural strengths.

A more balanced and orchestrated approach is required to take a long-term view of wood energy development and its economic, social and environmental connections, an attitude best summed up as wood energy for sustainable development, as distinct from notions of wood energy for survival.

If people hold woodfuels and other forest products or service benefits in high esteem and gain sustainable livelihoods by using, processing or marketing them, they are less likely to abuse or destroy the primary living source of those benefits and more likely to take on the task of establishing and managing their own forest resources in a self-reliant way.

Unsustainable use of forests occurs only when it is of some use or profit to somebody, as witness the many poor neighbourhoods where people sell fuelwood to earn money despite their own desperate shortage of fuel. Unsustainable practices can only be halted by replacement with sustainable practices, worth more both in cash and in quality of life gains. This axiom applies to large-scale industrial, agricultural and commercial operations as much as to localised domestic or artisanal applications.

The use of fuels derived from forests and other biomass has tremendous potential as an environmentally friendly. technically mature, economically feasible and socially acceptable energy practice. It could contribute significantly to a more rational and equitable 'New Energy Order' that is less reliant on fossil fuels and the costly infrastructure associated with them.

Assisting governments, specialised agencies, NGOs and the private sector towards a more sustainable approach to production and use of forests, woodlands and trees is a major concern of FAO. Its Wood Energy Programme aims to assist all those interested in any aspect of wood energy, from fuelwood production, charcoal conversion, trade, markets and wood energy to conversion and conservation. It encourages efforts to modernise traditional wood energy use and promote new wood energy initiatives as a modern source of energy.

To achieve these goals, the initial focus must be on improved wood energy systems that are cost effective and sustainable capable of both improving existing systems and facilitating the introduction of new ones. Examples of such improvements are:

• new and more efficient wood energy conversion technologies to produce more energy using less wood;
• a better flow of woodfuels between producers and users;
• increased fuelwood production, at lower prices.

The tools and instruments to develop, plan and undertake the necessary interventions for improved wood energy systems exist today. However, a more holistic approach shared in common by specialist governmental organizations, NGOs and the private sector must replace scattered field activities undertaken by different agencies without strategic coordination.

The FAO's Wood Energy for the Future Programme is designed to assist and guide the decision makers and energy policy designers of Member Countries. The Programme is structured into five clusters that may be implemented individually, or in various permutations.

Wood energy policy and institutions

It is vital that governments and specialised governmental agencies create an environment in which realistic, coherent and flexible wood energy policies can be established. Policies need to include adequate legislation and regulations to ensure sustainable production, marketing and use of wood as fuel. They should also abolish incentives and legislation that promote energy alternatives which inhibit the competitiveness of locally available energy sources, such as woodfuels and other biomass.

Once integrated wood energy strategies, programmes and projects have been shaped, activities can be implemented by assigning specific responsibilities to different agencies such as forestry services, energy units, rural development and financial agencies, NGOs, the private sector, research and development organizations and community groups.


RWEDP is a project executed by FAO and funded by the Government of the Netherlands with a planned duration of five years and a budget of US$8,84 million. Fifteen countries participate: Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.

Asian countries face an increasing need for energy services to support their economic and social development. Currently, 30 to 80 per cent of their overall energy needs are met by woodfuels. Biomass for cooking and heating dominate household energy use in the majority of the participant countries. Woodfuels are also used in many types of rural industry (sugar palm or cassava processing, brick and lime burning and so on), for commercial applications (street food vending, restaurants, hospitals, military camps and the like) and at social or ceremonial events such as cremations or festivals.

Previous versions of RWEDP have contributed to a better understanding of the complex dynamic of woodfuel flows and their interplay with supplies of alternative fuels to meet the energy needs of millions of urban and rural households, rural industries, village applications and commercial sectors. In response to predictions of a 'fuelwood crisis', several countries have initiated actions aimed at improved and more competitive wood energy systems. Unfortunately, many of the poorest people of the region live in mountainous, arid and semiarid areas and refugee camps, so have insufficient access to fuelwood, charcoal and other energy sources to meet daily energy needs.

The current project aims to promote improved wood energy systems that are more sustainable and could become competitive with alternative energy sources. Actions are focused on strengthening policy analysis, energy strategy formulation and wood energy assessment in these technical areas: woodfuel production, woodfuel processing and marketing and woodfuel use

Executives and beneficiaries of the project include, among others, more than 2000 government staff, NGOs, private voluntary organizations and regional organizations such as UNDP, ADB and ESCAP.

Governments and financial institutions have a key role to play in using fiscal levers to allocate investment funding to woodbased energy developments, not only on the demand side but also in support of those who supply wood for fuel. They should seek to promote improved and cost-effective wood energy systems, for both traditional and modern uses. Feasibility studies need to be undertaken and examples of best practice identified, evaluated and selected for further development. Structural funds can then be mobilised and investment opportunities identified and nurtured.

The effectiveness of any programme or project has to be monitored and continuously assessed so that policy and planning inputs to new programmes and projects can be modified in the light of experience.

Recipes for healthy institutional arrangements and sound policies to implement effective wood energy programmes require three essential ingredients:

• energy assessment and planning;
• information flow and market intelligence;
• research, education and training.

In respect of energy assessment and planning, there is a persistent need for better auditing of energy consumption and area-based woodfuel flows as a basis for more realistic demand forecasts, as well as more accurate cross-checks on existing data.

Progress towards integrated planning and the introduction of RSE into national energy plans has on the whole been slow. Many developing countries now give greater prominence to charcoal and other traditional wood energy resources in national energy budgets or development plans. In general, national planners still pay inordinate heed to electricity and fossil-based fuels on account of their more pronounced short-term impact on the balance of payments.

There have been moves to evaluate promising new technologies based on wood energy that might serve general commercial energy needs on an industrial scale. However, these initiatives are too often limited to the industrial research and development sector and energy planners show little interest in fostering them, despite their evident promise.

More emphasis is required on regular resource assessment aimed at incorporating wood energy development into planning processes at national, regional and local levels alike. If available skills and institutions are unequal to this task, authorities should award high priority to upgrading infrastructure and human resource development to correct such deficiencies.

Commonly, where development interventions and projects have been launched to boost wood energy production and use, little effort is made to probe their suitability or acceptability before they are started up, or to monitor their economic, social and environmental impact after completion. Appraisal and auditing methodologies must undergo radical improvements before safer and surer ways forward can be mapped.

Moves to increase wood energy supplies through more efficient management of existing forests are often burdened by institutional shortcomings and conflicting legislative provisions. A sound institutional and regulatory infrastructure for all forest activities, not merely for wood energy harvesting, is therefore of paramount importance.

Why, despite their attractions, is the transfer and adoption of new and mature wood energy technologies not multiplying at a faster rate, even in developed countries? Part of the answer to this question is simply a lack of up-to-date technical information flow and market intelligence in forms that technologists, planners and policy makers can put to practical use, such as patent or standards information and cost-benefit analysis of new technologies.

Various international networks were set up to create a flow of information between governments, researchers, economists and other interested parties, during the oil crisis years when interest in renewable energy soared. Yet many have since failed to attract continuing support and several have been discontinued despite a current resurgence of investor interest in RSE.

Experience shows that networks organised on a larger scale with multiple financial backing and qualified personnel (such as the Regional Wood Energy Development Programme for Asia and the Pacific or the Latin America Dendroenergy Network) survive better than smaller networks, whose scope and financial base are narrow.

Industrial and commercial interest groups could do more, out of enlightened self-interest, to nourish more and better technical information flow. They could also help supply another information 'missing link', market intelligence and promotional skills.


The Latin America Technical Cooperation Network on Dendroenergy was created in 1984 as a joint activity of the FAO Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean (RLAC) and the Wood Energy Programme of the FAO Forestry Department.

The network is a voluntary cooperative arrangement that aims to promote the horizontal exchange of information and experience among the experts and technicians of technical institutions involved in wood energy matters. The following countries are present members of the network: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Cuba, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Dominican Republic and Uruguay.

Regular meetings are held to discuss strategic topics of specific interest for the member countries and participants, assess the wood energy situation and strengthen regional/national capabilities to deal with wood energy matters. Several technical publications and case studies have been prepared and a newsletter is regularly prepared as a cost-effective channel to communicate information and promote strategies.

More recently, it has also promoted the creation of national groups to expand, transmit and share regional experiences with other colleagues and partners within the country. Argentina, Brazil and Honduras are among the most active national groups.

Another cooperative network on wood energy has been developed within the framework of the Regional Wood Energy Development Programme in Asia (RWEDP).

Harvesting feedback from the consumer to be passed back, via the supplier, to the producer is just as important as the harvesting of woodfuels from forests, converting them to energy and delivering it to the customer. Demand for energy and consumer choice increasingly dictate supply side developments as liberal trade policies gain higher status around the world. Demand might be influenced by proactive marketing to present, for example, the environmental benefits of wood energy as significant selling points.

Research, education and training are indispensable allies of better energy policies and moves towards energy transition. They are necessary to build the national skills base and infrastructure required to put sound wood energy policies and programmes into practice.

Since the early 1980s, some international courses and scholarships relevant to wood energy development have become available. These training opportunities have, however, diminished in recent years. More must be done to reverse this trend if wood energy development is not to be starved of skills needed to programme and implement change. National curriculum bodies have mustered scant growth in education and training programmes and courses.

Those few that exist do little to emphasise the interdisciplinary nature of RSE development, which in the case of wood energy might be expected to give rise to a 'new breed' of intermediary, schooled in forestry, technology and community development.

Public education programmes promoting specific activities, such as improved stoves or tree planting programmes, have been launched in many places but more are needed and ways should be found to incorporate the information they convey in the regular curricula of basic schooling or literacy training.

Wood energy resources development

Adequate and good-quality supplies of woodfuels need to be readily available all through the year at reasonable market prices to compete with alternative fuels. For this purpose, attention must be paid to:

• the establishment and management of forests, woodlands and trees;
• fuelwood harvesting, preparation and transportation;
• distribution, marketing and sale of woodfuels.

Fuelwood can be grown and harvested alongside all other forest products (timber and non-wood forests products) and in harmony with forest functions such as watershed or wildlife conservation (see Fig. 10 p31) and agricultural production. But the rights, limitations and quotas governing each type of use should be integrated and all should be matched to the natural carrying capacity of forest ecosystems.

Changes in the tenure and use of forests should be introduced with the willing participation and support of local people, in ways that acknowledge their needs, take advantage of their special knowledge and respect their established rights.

In many countries, population growth has upset the management traditions and tenure conventions of farming lands, creating widespread land hunger. This pressure usually leads to efforts either to raise the productivity of ever smaller units of land to support ever larger numbers of people, or to bring more land into production and out of common ownership. Forest lands and other sources of woodfuel are subject to related trends and pressures.

Unless this relationship is taken into account, the effects of management changes can prove counter-productive. For instance, when rights to forest lands pass into state or commercial hands and out of common ownership, even if for the specific purpose of increasing wood energy production, the management vacuum means traditional restrictions on overcutting woodfuel become defunct or are ignored. Traditional structures should be maintained wherever possible or replaced by agreed arrangements for conserving the resource. Fast and forced landuse changes are generally destined to fail.

Intensive 'energy farming' of trees for woodfuel production (as in mechanised energy plantations) has not lived up to expectations. Despite the introduction of fast-growing and high-yielding new tree species in many large-scale plantations during the 1980s, prices of wood in relation to energy costs have not proved competitive with fossil-based fuels and many introduced tree varieties have failed to match expected growth rates outside the plant-breeder's nursery. However, production costs are progressively decreasing and the use of new and modern technology together with new market opportunities can help to reduce prices more rapidly in the near future.

Another drawback of large-scale energy plantation programmes has been their tendency to conflict with the wishes of experienced local communities and their traditional resource needs, rights and habits. These limitations are not necessarily prohibitive but smaller-scale wood plantations and agroforestry projects, sensitively integrated into customary practice, appear more likely to succeed in the future. Their yield may still not make wood energy competitive in price with fossil-based commercial fuels, but fringe benefits such as livelihood creation, landscaping, amenity and utile by-products such as fodder or thatch, can reasonably be expected to tip the balance in their favour.

Basic research on biomass production has expanded significantly during the past 12 years, resulting in surer knowledge of the attributes of different plantation species, higher standards of harvesting, transportation and storage and a shrewder understanding of relative costs. The mass introduction of improved tree species has, however, failed in many cases because programmes are not based on sufficient consultation and cooperation with local communities to match the choice and management of plantation species to their needs, knowledge and customs. Participatory appraisal techniques which make the most of local knowledge and capacity should be more widely and routinely applied to energy planning and development.


In Thailand, plantations of eucalyptus species (chiefly Eucalyptus camaldumensis) have been established over more than 100000 hectares, to provide pulp and woodchips for commerce. The tree is fast-growing but is unsuitable for growing in close combination with field crops (intercropping) or animal husbandry (silvipasture). It places a heavy strain on local water supplies and soil nutrients and does not yield a generous by-product supply of firewood. Many local people feel the programme has put commercial interests above legitimate common property resource needs. Adequate consultation at the outset might well have resulted in a more apt choice of species, to the greater benefit and satisfaction of all concerned.

Wood energy conservation and substitution

Outstanding among the factors crucial to low-cost wood energy production are:

• energy conservation and substitution;
• opportunities in industry and commerce;
• mature and emerging bioenergy technologies.

Among energy conservation and substitution measures, the greatest energy gain for most categories of woodfuel users is still the adoption of improved cooking devices and more energy-efficient fuels or interfuels based on biomass sources, including wood to ensure and improve food quality and health for poor people.

If the woodfuel supply is short or threatened, biomass-based substitute fuels (if these are available) are preferable on environmental grounds to coal, kerosene or other fossil-based fuels but in urban areas the luxury of choice is often absent.

In heavy industry, local heating programmes, electricity generating industries, large agro-processing industries and the commercial energy sector in general, opportunities exist to extend and expand the role of wood in modern energy applications. New laws and policy structures aimed at curbing air pollution and reducing greenhouse gas emissions will probably speed up this process.

Wood energy can play a crucial role in the decentralisation and deregulation of public electricity services, allowing even small and isolated communities to gain access to electricity in a self-reliant way. Such intermediate technologies promise to serve the interests of the household energy consumer no less than those of major commercial operators. They must therefore be given adequate support and a fair trial, for their successful development will be of benefit to people and forests everywhere.

Opportunities in industry and commerce

Research and development activities have already resulted in a wide range of mature energy technologies which could, in theory at least, greatly extend the range and efficiency of wood energy production and use in commerce and industry while helping to conserve natural resources and maintain energy supplies.

Industrial energy technologies, including those applied in rural industries, present another key area of opportunity for more strategic wood energy development approaches, harnessed to sustainable forestry and the creation of livelihoods.

Commercial and industrial biomass conversion technologies such as pyrolysis and gasification systems have undergone marked technical improvements, while fuel processing techniques, such as the production of fuel briquettes from plant wastes, have also been brought to an advanced stage of development. Further research is needed into more versatile techniques that can use several different types of plant feedstock to fuel the same conversion process.

An overall problem is an apparent 'missing link' between successful bioenergy research or trials, and the mass production or application of results. Many convincing pilot projects backed by donor governments or development banks are never followed up by commercial developers. Part of the reason for this gap is the difficulty of proving the beneficial returns on capital investment these advances represent, in comparison with more familiar commercial technologies. Establishing comprehensive economic and technical criteria would make such comparisons easier. Extension activities can play a vital role in the dissemination of appropriate technologies among rural peoples.

In Asia, rural industries such as tea and coffee processing, brick manufacture, lime burning and fish-smoking account for some 20 per cent of the region's wood energy consumption. Total consumption by all industries is sure to be much higher, but data are hard to obtain, especially from the private sector.

There is undoubted potential in all industrial sectors that consume wood energy, to improve efficiency by means of energy conservation measures linked to forest conservation and afforestation programmes. Further benefits to local economies are likely to include job and income generation.

In addition, there is abundant scope for industries that produce biomass or process it in large quantities, such as the agro-processing or timber industries, to serve an enhanced role as energy producers. Improved and advanced technologies could enable them to convert waste or surplus biomass into energy, not only for their own purposes but also for resale to national energy grids or commercial energy distributors. Moreover, the use of woody wastes from forest industries and activities can become excellent raw material for big-ethanol production through hydrolysis and the production of ETBE (see page 55).

Mature and emerging bioenergy technologies

Technologies for optimising the energy yield of raw plant materials include efforts to modernise or upgrade traditional energy applications, for example by introducing improved burning stoves and furnaces for artisanal use. New and more innovative approaches can be designed to improve the use of fuelwood and charcoal for cooking and heating at household level matched with new cooking practices to gather the full nutritional value of foods. Much knowledge and experience have been gained from efforts to adapt new types of stoves to local cooking habits, dietary preferences and kitchen designs. But these intermediate technologies need continuous, methodical research and development, aimed particularly at increasing their appeal in terms of health and nutrition benefits and promoting their use in more organized and studied ways akin to market research or promotion following participatory, 'two-way' consultative processes.

The targeting of such processes is important, too. In strategic terms, much of the past development of wood energy applications in harness with forest conservation measures has not been applied in the communities that need it most. Improved stoves programmes, for instance, have been largely concentrated in rural areas, where their potential as a conservation measure was thought to be at its peak.

It has since become apparent, however, that fuelwood scarcity is often most urgent in or near urban areas, and that it makes better sense to introduce improved stoves there in any case. Urban people are generally more open to new technologies, earn higher average incomes and are more used to regarding fuel and energy as commercial goods than many rural people. Thus they are more amenable to energy conservation options such as fuel-efficient stoves or more regular use of charcoal. They are also better able to afford either woodfuels or alternative fuels such as kerosene, gas and electricity, or substitute fuels such as briquettes, formed from crop and forestry wastes, or a versatile mixture of all three.

Sustaining wood energy supplies around urban areas requires systematic management of existing forests and often calls for the creation of new forest areas. Where there is a ready commercial market for woodfuels and other products from these sources, it is clearly easier to finance and justify forest conservation or replanting programmes from the outset.

A higher capacity to implement and diffuse novel wood energy technologies - whatever their scale or scope - should be built into institutional development of all kinds. Such outreach should promote a variety of options, including biomass energy conversion systems, energy-saving techniques and fuel substitution approaches.

Emerging technologies for wood energy conversion include processes for mechanised fuel preparation. One such is densification - the physical reduction of plant matter to small particles of even consistency, for rapid conversion to energy products without prolonged drying or other preparation. Private sector investment in joint ventures between industry and forestry interests should be actively encouraged in the future. Such linkages hold a vital key to unlocking the unrealised potential of wood energy technologies.

Multiple hybrid bioenergy systems could be implemented where a combination of biomass, photovoltaic, wind, and other sources of energy can be easily complemented with fossil fuels as required to maximise economic, financial and environmental resources.

Insofar as there has been transfer of these technologies in the past, those intended for domestic application tended to follow different pathways than those which relate to industry. Yet all wood energy users rely, in the end, on the same forest resources and hold an equal stake in their future. Integrated wood energy development that takes all-round account of domestic and industrial needs and uses is liable to result in far more comprehensive accounting of what the term 'sustainable' actually means and requires.

Woodfuels trading and marketing

Many variants determine the source and origin of woodfuels used in rural and urban areas to meet the energy needs of households, industry and commerce. Systems of moving wood from production sources to end-users vary from simple to sophisticated. In the case of fuelwood collected for personal use, only the collector is involved; in cases where woodfuels are gathered from forests and private woodlots for sale to end-users located in urban areas, many intermediaries can be involved, such as tree owners, woodfuel cutters, woodfuel assemblers, charcoal makers, transporters, commission agents, wholesalers, retailers, buyers and users. It is not easy to trace the flow of woodfuels where so many actors are involved in the system.

Interventions can be designed to make the system more effective and competitive, for example:

• large lots may be split up in smaller bundles;
• transportation can be better organized, to reduce distribution costs;
• large wood and charcoal pieces can be reduced to decrease losses;
• layout of stock yards can be improved to reduce the handling costs;
• repacking of products for different users can take place.

In almost all cases, these activities are regulated by different government agencies, particularly forestry services. However, there are many exceptions and if controls are in place, they are not always properly executed and followed up.

Although in rural areas most fuelwood is freely collected for the use of people living in and around forests lands, a considerable amount of fuelwood and charcoal is commercialised in informal markets which are difficult to quantify and control.

The operation these wood energy systems involve many people in rural as well as urban areas. In the Philippines, for example, it is estimated that over 830000 households (530000 gatherers, 158000 charcoal makers and sellers, 40000 rural traders, and 100000 urban traders) are engaged in the woodfuel trade, from gathering to retailing, covering around 10 per cent of all rural households and about 40 per cent of their cash income.

Area-based woodfuel flow studies at district or provincial level could yield valuable data about production sources, traders, end-users, their locations and the different economic and socioeconomic conditions affecting these decentralised, systems, showing how and under what conditions woodfuels are moved from production sources to the end-user.

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