State of the world's forests - contribution of woodfuels to the energy sector

Much of the wood harvested worldwide each year is used for energy production. Of the estimated 3 350 million m3 of wood harvested in 1995, about 2 100 million m3, or 63 percent, were used as woodfuels. While, in developed countries, only 33 percent of the wood produced was used for energy purposes, in developing countries woodfuels accounted for 81 percent (91 percent in Africa, 82 percent in Asia and 70 percent in Latin America) of the wood harvested. The figures illustrate the importance of woodfuels in total wood production and their relevance for the forestry sector.

Woodfuels remain significant sources of energy in developing countries, especially in the rural and domestic sectors. In recent years, however, they have been attracting attention as environmentally friendly modern energy carriers. Changes in energy policies have favoured the development of wood energy systems, and new biomass energy technologies are improving the economic feasibility of wood energy, particularly in countries which are heavily forested and have well-established wood processing industries. The environmental costs of fossil fuels are also making woodfuels more attractive.

Role of woodfuels in the forest and energy sectors

Woodfuels consist of fuelwood, charcoal and black liquor (a by-product of pulp and paper). The Table shows the consumption of different woodfuel types by region and provides a picture of forestry's contribution to the energy sector.

Woodfuels account for an estimated 7 percent of the world's total energy supply. In developing countries, however, where fuelwood is a major source of fuel for household use, the average share of woodfuels in total energy use is 15 percent. In 34 developing countries, fuelwood and charcoal supply more than 70 percent of national energy demand. Woodfuels constitute the major source of energy for most countries of sub-Saharan Africa, Central America and continental Southeast Asia. While fuelwood is the predominant form of wood energy used in rural areas of developing countries, charcoal remains a significant source of energy for many African, Asian and Latin American countries, mainly for urban households.

Woodfuels account for only 2 percent of total energy use in developed countries. This figure, however, conceals great differences in use at national and subnational levels. For example, in Europe, relatively small quantities of woodfuels are used in the United Kingdom, Belgium and Germany, while large amounts are consumed in the densely forested countries of Finland, Sweden and Austria. In Finland, wood energy supplies an estimated 17 percent of the national energy demand. Black liquor accounts for a high proportion of the total woodfuels used in most developed countries, where it is used by large pulp and paper industries to meet their needs for heat and power.

Consumption of woodfuels and share of woodfuels in total energy use in 1995


Woodfuels (106 m3 equivalent)
Fuelwood Charcoal Black liquor Woodfuels’ share in total energy use (%)
Developing countries total 1 533 131 34 15
Africa 445 72 3 35
Asia: developing 859 25 12 12
Oceania: developing 6 0 0 52
Latin America1 and Caribbean 223 34 19 12
Developed countries total 187 6 228 2
Europe, Israel and Turkey 56 2 51 3
Former USSR2 32 0 8 1
Canada and United States 96 4 146 3
Australia, New Zealand and Japan 3 0 23 1
World total 1 720 137 262 7
Source: FAO-WEIS. For more details on these figures refer to the Web site:
1 Including Mexico, and all Central American and South American countries.
2 Including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Republic of Moldova, Russian Federation, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.



Recent developments in wood energy

Woodfuel consumption in developing countries has increased steadily with the growth in population, although woodfuels' share in national energy balances of these countries has progressively diminished as a result of the increased use of fossil fuel such as oil, coal and gas.

Similarly, fossil fuels have continued to fulfil most of the increased demand for energy in the majority of developed countries.

Actions by many countries to deregulate, liberalize and privatize energy markets over the last two decades, however, have stimulated competition between energy suppliers and have presented new opportunities for other, non-fossil fuel, energy sources. Some countries have also raised taxes on fossil fuels, resulting in decreased use of these fuels and, in some cases, increased use of other energy sources. In addition, woodfuels are becoming considerably more cost-competitive as energy sources with the development and adoption of new technologies for their production, transport, handling and storage; more efficient combustion devices; and improved systems for planning, management and organization of wood energy systems. In Sweden, for example, the price of energy generated with fossil fuels doubled between 1980 and 1997, whereas that of wood energy remained stable. This was due to the combined effect of increased cost efficiency of wood energy generation and increased taxes on fossil fuels which made them less attractive financially.

Several countries are changing their energy policies to encourage expanded use of wood energy. The recently adopted White Paper by the Commission of the European Communities gives special attention to bioenergy (including both woodfuels and agricultural energy crops) and constitutes a framework for the future development of renewable energy within the 16 European Union countries.

In 1994, the Finnish Government established objectives for the promotion of wood energy with the aim of increasing their use by 25 percent from the current level by the year 2005. Similar initiatives are being adopted in other countries. In Denmark, 50 percent of households are on district heating fuelled by biofuels. The Netherlands have launched a special investment programme for the promotion of power and heating plants using woody biomass as fuel.

The Canadian Forest Service began an initiative in 1995 to facilitate the introduction of bioenergy (mainly wood energy) for power generation in the remote "First Nations Communities" in northern Canada. The purpose was not only to provide more energy to these isolated areas but also to create employment and foster self-reliance of the indigenous communities.

Several successful bioenergy programmes have been established in developing countries. Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia have recently launched wood energy initiatives with the support of an economic cooperation programme between the Economic Commission and the ASEAN countries (the EC-ASEAN COGEN Programme). A private company in Chile, Chilgener, has been supplying industries with energy generated from woody wastes since 1992. In Nicaragua, two sugar mills have diversified their sugar production with electricity generated with bagasse (during the sugar-cane production season) and fuelwood (when bagasse is unavailable) derived from eucalyptus plantations (see Box on p. 4). Both mills sell this energy to the national power grid. A similar project is under way in Honduras.


Following the trend of most energy sectors of Latin America, Nicaragua has passed an energy law with new rules for the participation of the private sector in the generation, transmission and distribution of electricity. San Antonio and Victoria de Julio are two sugar mills which have taken advantage of this new law and are supplying about 27 megawatts equivalent (MWe) of electricity to the national grid using bagasse as a main fuel (during the sugar-cane season) and fuelwood (off-season) derived from more than 6 000 ha of eucalyptus plantations.

San Antonio is the largest sugar mill in Nicaragua. It has a contract with the government to supply bioelectricity using bagasse and fuelwood. The first eucalyptus plantations were established in the area of the sugar-cane plantations. Additional plantations have since been established on rented lands. Some of the fuelwood is being produced by local farmers, who have long-term contracts with the mill, which guarantees a price for the wood. By 1996, over 2 600 ha of fuelwood plantations had been established.

Victoria de Julio, the second largest sugar mill in Nicaragua, started operating in 1985. It has a generation capacity of 12 MWe electricity using bagasse and fuelwood and has ambitious expansion plans. The concept of electricity as a second product was integrated into the original design of the plant. The sugar-cane plantations have a circular configuration as they are irrigated by a circular pivot system. Eucalyptus is planted on the land between the circular sugar-cane plantations and now totals about 4 000 ha.

An economic study concluded that electricity generation in Nicaraguan sugar mills using these biofuels is not only technically feasible but appears to be competitive at the current selling price of 5.7 ¢/kWh against 6.8 ¢/kWh for fuel oil. In addition, 73 percent of the income derived from the energy generated with eucalyptus remains in the Nicaraguan economy, compared with 14 to 30 percent in the case of electricity produced with fuel oil. In terms of employment generation, eucalyptus provides three times more jobs than does fuel oil.

    Source: FAO. 1997. La generación de electricidad a partir de eucalipto y bagazo en ingenios azucareros de Nicaragua, by R. van den Broek. Final report. Rome.

Potential for wood energy development in the future

Woodfuels are expected to continue to play an important role for some time to come as a traditional source of energy in developing countries, particularly among low-income sectors of the populations.Fuelwood and charcoal will also continue to be burnt in limited quantities by households and small industries for specialized uses in developed countries. Recent policy changes and experiences with bioenergy programmes in several countries, however, indicate that woodfuels are becoming more attractive to countries as a modern, renewable energy source. They have the potential to become more competitive with fossil fuels under certain situations, both for economic reasons (e.g. as locally available and inexpensive sources of energy from fast-growing fuelwood plantations, thinnings from timber plantations, residues from forest industries, etc.) and for environmental reasons (e.g. related to efforts to mitigate global warming). The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has recognized the potential role of woodfuels as part of the substitution strategy to reduce emissions of CO2 from fossil fuels. The Kyoto Protocol of UNFCCC, if ratified, has the potential to play a catalytic role in the further development of wood energy.


There are major weaknesses and gaps in information on woodfuels, which make planning for current woodfuel production and use and modelling future wood energy scenarios problematic. Lack of good-quality data on woodfuel production and flows makes it difficult to address crucial issues on woodfuel supply, trade, use and substitution. These problems stem from methodologies and weak national capabilities in woodfuel data collection, compilation and presentation. The use of different terms, definitions and units for data also make it extremely hard to exchange and compare information available from different agencies at the national and international levels. Various regional and international organizations (including FAO, the International Energy Agency, the Asian Institute of Technology, the Organización Latinoamericana de la Energía and the European Statistical Office) collect and disseminate data on fuelwood and charcoal production and use. In order to enable comparison of national and international statistics on woodfuels, FAO, in conjunction with other relevant agencies, is now working on the development of unified wood energy terminology and conversion factors. This, combined with on-going efforts to strengthen national capabilities in collection and analysis of woodfuel data, should improve the quality and availability of information on woodfuels.

Increased consideration of woodfuels is likely to be given by both the forest and the energy sectors in the future in response to these recent developments. Improved planning will depend in part on a sound information base but, at present, the global information on woodfuels is extremely weak (see Box below). Continued efforts at improving information collection and analysis will be essential, as will be further assessment of the relative costs and benefits of woodfuels, fossil fuels and alternative sources of fuels as economic conditions and environmental commitments evolve. (Source: State of the World's Forests 1999 [SOFO].)

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