Which is more efficient/clean?

I’ve always found answers to today’s problems from past approaches, so this got me to think about a particular thing on household energy.

Is it more efficient and less damaging to cook or heat with firewood that you pick up from the forest floor, or using “modern” fuel like gas or electricity?

Ok, I am making some assumptions here. I am assuming that everyone can get access to firewood that doesn’t involve chopping down trees.

Why am I asking this? Well, I am just thinking all the things that we have to do to get fuel to our household. No, it’s not about setting an account with the energy company and paying the bills. I am talking about digging into the earth in massive scale, transporting the fuel, processing the resources and the distribution of the final product, so that we can get it by turning a knob on our stainless stove tops. I am talking about the real price that humans are paying.

Then I am looking into my grandparents’ generation and my parents were young, when they lived in an agricultural society, crop waste was a convenient source of fuel. The first thing my mom had to do when she came home from school everyday was to set up the fire in the brick stove to cook rice. If she did it late or messed it up, the whole family don’t get to eat dinner as usual. Anyways, will this be more sensible as compared to what we have already considered to be a “convenient” form of energy? Is it “convenient” only because we, the consumers, are shield from the massive process that is involved in bringing the fuel to us? Or is gathering firewood a less civilized way only because we, the end users, have to do it ourselves?

I don’t know the difference if we investigate, by per amount of energy, how much we are losing with each method. Maybe the modern way is indeed more economical and environmentally friendly. May be it’s not. I am just imagining a scenario where firewood has its own section in the grocery store, categorized by the type of crop or wood it is, and maybe people will even care if they are organic or not.

Alright, this really isn’t realistic. Crop waste are well used today anyways in multiple applications. I guess what I am getting is, we are so used to modern conveniences that we start to deny many old ways. Perhaps “retro” is good after all, beyond the aesthetic sense of course.

I guess that using naturally felled trees would be better. They are going to rot and emit CO2 anyways. By burning it, we are simply emitting the CO2 sooner. On the other hand, the forest floor would not be enriched by the break down of the tree, so the forest may be slightly less healthy.

I don’t think you are completely comparing apples with apples though. Nuclear, hydro, wind and solar emit nothing at the generator (manufacturing could). The electricity can be used to heat very efficiently. Also, we have neat technology like heat pumps. I think a national program to subsidize insulation and heat pump installations would probably make the biggest diff to electricity use reduction, although be the least sexy governmental program ever.

Nuclear has it’s environmental downside as most people already know. What can be worse is how it impacts people politically. There has been cases where wealthy countries don’t want to deal with its own nuclear waste and pay third world countries to take them. To me, pretty much every aspect of this trade is wrong.

Hydro isn’t clean as well. Creating the dam can cause a lot of harm to the environment and habitate depending on how you look at it. Plus, dams are not ever lasting. Some dams, surprisingly, are only rated for 20 yr lifespan. As soon as the silt build-up reaches a critical level when the dam no longer holds enough water, it has to be destroyed. In Taiwan, there are situations that after a major rainstorm, instead of getting more water, the city runs out of water because the dam reservoir water is too milky to refine.

Every way has it’s ups and downs. I think geothermo, tidal and wind are probably the most clean ones, but are restricted by location and scale.

I think I understand the motivation behind your question, but it seems that some history, science, and technology are needed to frame a useful answer.

First, people have moved toward more convenient form of energy precisely because its more convenient and less work. As you described in your example of building a fire every day, not so much fun. Convenience and labor saving devices improve our quality of life, thus is considered a noble goal.

As for the specifics of using fallen wood as opposed to current energy infrastructure. I think you answered your own question when you conclude that most people would not have access to such resources, especially in urban areas. Not to mention that sufficient wood simply does not exist to satisfy the demand. Either fallen down or if it is cut and distributed.

This is one of the great mistakes of the bio-fuels movement. It assumes that sufficient fuel can be grown to satisfy needs while also providing for our food. This is simply not so. Consider the industrial revolution. England where this began, early on switched from wood to coal as a source of energy. Was this because coal is a superior energy source? No, the problem was that the forests of England (and scotland, Ireland, Wales) were quickly being cut down to supply the growing demand for energy. Coal was a viable alternative and so digging started. In other words, trees could not be grown quickly enough to supply the energy needs of early nineteenth century England, let alone provide the vastly expanded needs of today.

All human activity makes and impact on the environment. The questions really are: what impact? is that sustainable? is that objectionable?

Most people I know agree that so called ‘green’ energy sources can not, and will not, supply the energy needs of the future. Hydro is already done. Wind has some potential, but is not conveniently located. Solar is very costly for all but water heating. Also, many analysis of ‘green’ energy don’t do a proper total energy analysis, that includes the complete energy cost and impact of installing an energy system. This includes the energy of materials, the energy of manufacturing, the energy of distribution and installation, the energy of disposal.

Some of these technologies are actually counterproductive, some people even consider them genocidal! Consider bio-fuels. To grow the soybeans and corn to make bio-diesel and ethanol, lands formally dedicated to food crops are now dedicated to these energy purposes. The prices of these commodities have soared. People in less developed nations have gone hungry as a result. Denying fossil fuels to developing countries is tantamount to condemning their populations to perpetual subsistence existence. Only the wealthy western countries can afford the expensive ‘green’ technologies.

This doesn’t mean that niche uses don’t exist for ‘green’ technologies, even in developing countries. Hydro power and solar water heating are proven cost effective, reliable sources of energy. But simple calculations show that things like solar powered cars are simply out of the question.

On renewable resources, I doubt that the initial cost of an array of solar panels against the cost of a lifetime of use would be minimal compared to the cost of a coal fired powerplant. And with the new innovation in Vinyl solar sells, solar voltaic energy uses less materials.

In biofuels you are forgetting some key components and that is Algea. The little green goo has actually been found to be a great source of energy and a science teacher in Alabama recenlty discovered how to make it as efficient as gasoline. Also, there is discarded wood chips from lumber yards. It actually is a great source for biofuels.

On the question, what is better burning a wood fire or using electricity, it really depends.

A. Wood stove, great for individuals because it can heat your home and be used to cook food. It is really not hard to start a wood stove fire. However, everyone with a wood stove fire is that it would send tons of co2 into the air everyday, there wouldn’t be enough fuel lying around, and there would probably be more occurences of house fires.

B. Electricity, you have to think of the source. Coal means tons of CO2, coal dust ponds that are environmentally dangerous and dangerous to people, mercury leaks into streams and into larger ocean bodies. Coal also is usually strip mind in Appalachia. Mountains are flattened causing erosion, stream blocking, local property loss, and youth asthma.
The processing for nuclear fuel leaves “Yellow Cake” all over the South Western terrain which has brought on cancer in local Native American communities.Even though nuclear is safe form of energy, the engineers still do not know what language to put on the Waste barrels. By the time those barrels are safe, the world languages will have changed completely.

So pick your poison, but when I am in a position to do so, I am buying Solar panels.