Friday, November 23, 2018

In Praise of Wood Energy

There's lots of tree worship in a town like Princeton, and often for good reason, but somehow that love seldom extends to the wonderful material legacy a tree leaves behind when it is cut down. In a town dependent on unethical energy, the main renewable alternatives are solar panels and wood. Below are a couple examples of the pleasure that wood can bring, allowing us to take a break from collectively feeding dystopia.

Eating at Nomad Pizza recently, we sat near the two igloo-shaped ovens through which so many pizzas travel on their way to tables. Through the small opening of the oven, we could see in the back of the chamber a glowing orange fuel that looked like plasma. "What heats your ovens?",  I asked one of the waiters. Wood, I was told. Mixed hardwoods. "That's solar energy," I said, approvingly. She went on to say that their foodscraps are fed to the pigs on the farm where they get some of their pizza ingredients. Assuming that some of the ovens' heat radiates out into the surrounding indoor air, then wood is helping to heat the restaurant itself.

Meanwhile, at home, of all the warm and wonderful participants in our Thanksgiving dinner, by far the warmest was our wood stove. The stove radiated such heat that, combined with our own collective physical radiance, we could for many hours break free of that gas-burning furnace in the basement.

Our guests' kids showed an extraordinary and gratifying curiosity about all things, and wanted to see what was making the stove so hot. I opened its front doors, and there inside was a plasma-like glow, hot beyond flame, giving back to our world all that wonderful energy captured from the sun during the tree's life. Fossil fuels feed climate change by injecting additional carbon from underground up into the atmosphere. But the tree is built of carbon harvested from the air, and so simply gives that carbon back when it burns, causing no net increase.

Interestingly, the stove is fed from the top, through the lid where the steam pot sits. No smoke comes out into the room, in part because a wood stove generates no smoke when it's burning well, and because the draft pulls the air back and up into the chimney.

Before warming our indoor world, some of our locally scavenged firewood is fashioned into a curving wall in the backyard garden, rebuilt each summer and slowly dismantled for heat through the winter.

I urged the town sustainability planners to view wood as one of our few ethical energy options. Wood is by default chipped up and piled in windrows to decompose, its carbon released back into the air without utilizing its considerable solar energy to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

In the meantime, wood brings pleasure to a few of us on the periphery, and the many customers at a local pizza joint.