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Good old-fashioned wood heat is now a fuel with a future

"Split wood, not atoms" has become a familiar bumper sticker. And regardless of one's views on nuclear power, it's obvious that the old-time fuel has new appeal. But it has been hard to judge how much wood contributes to the US energy budget.

Nigel Smith, a former worker at the Brazilian Institute for Amazonian Research, who now is with Worldwatch Institute, has put this in perspective. Wood, it seems, has been making respectable progress in the US energy market.

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Last year, Smith estimates, wood contributed about 1.5 quads out of a total US energy consumption of 80 quads. A quad, which is a quadrillion British thermal units, is the usual measure of large-scale energy use.

This is a respectable start toward the 10 quads of energy which the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment has projected that firewood could supply annually by AD 2000. Referring to the OTA study, Smith points out that this could amount to 10 percent of the total US energy supply if conservation were to hold growth in energy demand to about 1 percent a year on the average. That expectation is optimistic, but perhaps not unreasonable, given the continuing rise in energy costs.

Another indicator of wood's growing popularity is the rise in annual wood stove sales, from under 200,000 units before 1973 to more than a million last year. Sales of industrial wood furnaces also rose from insignificance to capture about 5 percent of the boiler market by the mid-1970s.

Clearly, there's more to wood's popularity than the desire of some homeowners to cut fuel bills. The inherent advantages of a renewal fuel, which is a form of solar energy and which can be grown on marginal land, are real. So too are economies on an industrial scale that can be realized by using what had been a waste material such as wood scraps and forest waste associated with papermaking.

Taking a global view, Smith, as have others, notes the large contribution wood can make to many developing countries. He acknowledges that this asset is fast being lost through thoughtless deforestation. But he points out that third-world nations are beginning to awaken to this loss. One hopes his perception is correct, for some other observers have painted a less optimistic picture.

Likewise, in the United States, the thick pall and acrid fumes that have begun to appear in a number of areas from the rise in wood stoves points up another kind of environmental problem. Again, Smith notes this and says that it is solvable. Much of the nuisance, he thinks, can be avoided by properly designed stoves and chimney systems, perhaps with small-scale precipitators to remove harmful effluents.

How soon environmental regulators may move in this direction is hard to foresee. But one fact is clear, wood is a fuel with a future, and a whole new industry needs to be developed to ensure an ample supply at a reasonable price and to provide acceptable ways of burning it.