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Sustainable Forest Management (SFM) Toolbox

Wood Energy

This module outlines the challenges and opportunities associated with the production and use of woodfuel and its socioeconomic and environmental impacts in developing countries. It discusses the role of value-chain approaches in addressing existing problems in the wood energy sector, and it briefly discusses the large-scale industrial use of woodfuel. 

Wood energy is the energy generated from wood or wood-derived products – usually through combustion processes – and used for cooking, heating or electricity generation. The term “wood energy” is also used to refer to wood and wood-derived materials used for energy purposes (“woodfuel”), which may be in solid, liquid or gaseous form (Figure 1). Solid woodfuel includes fuelwood (also called firewood), charcoal and wood pellets (briquettes, chips) produced from wood or wood residues. Fuelwood comprises unprocessed woody biomass harvested from the stems, branches or other parts of trees, and it sometimes is also taken to include wood residues (such as sawdust and wood shavings) derived from timber harvesting or wood-processing industries used for energy production. 

Figure 1. Common types of woodfuel 

Wood is a basic energy resource for billions of people

Wood is a basic energy resource for billions of people

One-third of households worldwide and two-thirds of those in Africa use wood as their main fuel for cooking, heating and boiling water (often essential for ensuring safe drinking water). Woodfuel provides more than half the national energy supply in 29 countries, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa. The total demand for woodfuel (particularly charcoal) is unlikely to decline in the short to medium term and may even increase as populations grow and become increasingly urban, and as wood is increasingly perceived as a green, renewable source of energy.

Despite its socioeconomic significance, wood is sometimes regarded as an inferior source of energy. For example, the traditional woodfuel* sector is often associated with unsustainable and often illegal production that leads to deforestation, forest degradation and, in some areas, woodfuel scarcity. Another problem associated with the traditional woodfuel sector is indoor air pollution due to the use of inefficient woodstoves, leading to health problems; moreover, fuelwood collection can impose a disproportionate work burden on women and children.

In many developing countries it may be unrealistic in the short to medium term to replace woodfuel with fossil fuels as the primary source of energy for cooking. Nor would this be an optimum solution given the availability, accessibility, affordability and potential sustainability of woodfuel compared with many other energy options. Rather, efforts are needed to address the problems associated with traditional woodfuel production and use through regulatory interventions, improved forest management practices, and technological advances. Combined, the following achievements would ensure a sustainable and viable wood energy sector in developing countries:

  • the sustainable production of woodfuel in forests and trees outside forests;
  • the efficient use and conversion of wood and wood waste to charcoal or other processed woodfuels;
  • the clean and efficient use of woodfuel; and
  • the full accounting of the socioeconomic and environmental benefits and costs of the wood energy sector – for example with regard to employment, gender equity, food security, human health and climate change.

The major challenges for the sustainable development of the wood energy sector include:

  • the lack of sound data on production, transformation/conversion, trade and markets, and consumption;
  • the lack of robust policies and regulations on, and effective governance of, wood energy plantations, woodfuel harvesting, and charcoal production and trade; and
  • the heavy reliance of the poor on woodfuel for their basic energy needs and as an important means of employment for subsistence livelihoods.

In developing countries, woodfuel is increasingly used for power generation and for household heating using clean and efficient technologies, driven partly by concern about climate change and a desire to decrease greenhouse gas emissions caused by fossil fuels. For example, wood energy accounts for more than 10 percent of energy consumption in 13 European countries.

Emerging opportunities to improve the performance of the wood energy sector include:

  • increasing awareness in the international community of the need to provide access to modern, sustainable sources of energy for all, including the poor;
  • the active role of sustainable wood energy in climate-change mitigation;
  • technological advances in the efficient industrial use of woodfuel in developed countries, which provides opportunities for technology innovation and transfer; and
  • increased awareness of the need to address problems in the wood energy sector in a holistic and systematic way through value-chain approaches.

(*) In general, traditional woodfuel production and use can be thought of as the collection or extraction of wood from natural or community forests for household cooking and heating or for small-scale productive use that generates income, as well as charcoal production using low-efficiency technologies to serve rural and urban market for household cooking or micro-enterprises.