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Charcoal as Fuel. Ethical?

 
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I am wondering how the folks here feel about charcoal as a renewable fule. I realize that it makes co2 and can contribute to deforestation and loss of humus in soil if over done.
What about charcoal production in a managed food forest. Thank you for your oppinion
 
                                              
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Well Im not using the charcoal for fuel, but Im setting up part of my forest for the production of future charcoal for terra preta/biochar and hugelkulter beds. (probably spelling that wrong)

  Im going to use honest locust, as Ive read that once established you can continually harvest branches and have desirable fire wood, so Im sure it makes a good charcoal as well. they grow pretty good here also.

  Im not sure how efficient of a fuel source it is, so I cant comment there, but in the soil its effects are profound and last 1000s of years. also sequestering carbon. In my dry heavy soils it has an amazing impact....

   
 
steward
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managed appropriately, I don't see any problems with charcoal production that can't be rectified.  if coppice is harvested on a good rotation, all the carbon that is released is taken up again as the trees grow back.

but, like you mentioned, there are plenty of examples of folks going about it all wrong and causing all sorts of damage and degradation.  approach it with wisdom, knowledge, and respect, though, and charcoal production on an appropriate scale should work out fine.
 
Jeff Hodgins
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I think I should have called this topic (growing yor own fule) because its realy a wider discusion (bio deasel, ethanol ect.).
 
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BDAFJeff wrote:
I am wondering how the folks here feel about charcoal as a renewable fule. I realize that it makes co2 and can contribute to deforestation and loss of humus in soil if over done.
What about charcoal production in a managed food forest. Thank you for your oppinion



Charcoal is not renewable, biochar is.
 
steward
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Charcoal is made from wood.  Wood is a renewable resource with responsible management.  Most forests would benefit from a 10% clearing of weak, sick growth.
 
Mekka Pakanohida
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John Polk wrote:
Charcoal is made from wood.  Wood is a renewable resource with responsible management.  Most forests would benefit from a 10% clearing of weak, sick growth.



Your right, but I disagree about the most forests part.  I forgot my ink making lessons regarding sumi.  Many around here are monoculture deserts.

 
Jeff Hodgins
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So based on what most of you have said, making charcoal on a sustainable scale could be considered part of a permaculture system. It is definatly better than ethonol and some seem to be justifying even that.
 
John Polk
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Charcoal, ethanol, and plain old fire wood are renewable resources.  They cannot be raised in every climate or region, but in areas where they do grow abundantly, I feel that we must utilize them in preference to non-renewable fuels until technology brings us more economical PV panels.  I cannot justify putting $30,000 onto my roof to save me $500 per year.
 
tel jetson
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BDAFJeff wrote:
So based on what most of you have said, making charcoal on a sustainable scale could be considered part of a permaculture system. It is definatly better than ethonol and some seem to be justifying even that.



well, charcoal done badly would easily be worse than ethanol done well.  either of those done badly would probably be worse than fossil fuels.  done really well, though, both charcoal and ethanol could be produced as part of excellent regenerative systems.  and, as John Polk pointed out, firewood can be used wisely, too.

sadly, the vast majority of all fuel use and production to date has been done in short-sighted fashion with extremely negative consequences.
 
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Wood is an excellent source of fuel. We can grow it locally. No need to import it from terrorist corporations. You can even just use the dead wood on your land, the trimmings. The trees grow and sequester CO2. Wood releases it so they can use it again. CO2 is good. Without it there would be death - no plants.
 
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Well, it hasn't worked out so well for Haiti or North Africa, but one could make the case that it could have if they had coppiced or at least replanted instead of just cutting and burning.

Charcoal is something I want to try making probably later this summer.

Ecologically, it seems to me that the emissions it makes as it goes from wood to charcoal would be significant and create a local nuisance. Of course, some of that could be burned off, but that would require more advanced equipment like installing a rocket stove afterburner.

It has the distinct advantage of being a local and renewable resource that is easily produced with the simplest of technology in most habitable parts of the world.
 
John Polk
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The reason it failed so miserably in Haiti is pure economics (or, rather, lack of economics).
Even though Haiti is a warm sub-tropical area, wood is the only source of cooking fuel for the poor.  They are so poor that they will keep the cook fire burning 24/7 because they cannot afford to buy a box of matches!  It is true that you can fly over Hispanola and SEE the Haitian/Dominican border...it is where the vegetation STOPS.  Obviously. soil erosion has also been a major problem.
 
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Just asking for a clarification:

What is the advantage of good charcoal vs good wood for your intended use?

As an example, in a forge or a foundry, charcoal has definite advantages.  To heat a house with a woodstove, it would have definite disadvantages, haven already given up a significant percentage of its energy content.

Thanks in advance,

troy
 
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What has happened in Haiti and other places is what is described as the “tragedy of the commons.” If a resource such as a forest or pasture land is considered common property to everyone, then everyone will try to get the biggest chunk they can. Sort of like everyone with the federal budget.
Now if you own your own land and are being a steward of the land then charcoal as a product of the land is not different then selling apples or any other product of the land.  Personally though I feel charcoal is a waste of effort as a fuel when a rocket stove would deliver the full heat of the wood. With charcoal a good portion of the energy is lost from the wood to produce the charcoal. If you have a need to transport the energy or have a market for the value added product that charcoal is then there may be justification.
The main advantage of charcoal is it is concentrated energy that is lighter per BTU than wood so is easier to transport.
Sort of like whiskey is easier to transport than the amount of corn it took to produce it.
 
                                                
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If you're making lump charcoal from logs, branches and the like I feel it is a waste of heat, especially for cooking.  You can make charcoal out of corn cobs which is still a waste of heat but at least you're not using a tree. I'd rather turn a tree into a board,then use the left over’s for heating, cooking or compost.
IMO the best thing to come along are the wood pellets and bricks. They take sawdust or another bio-mass waste, for lack of a better word and use it for fuel. (also use sawdust for charcoal)
I saw cherry pits for sale this past winter to be used in wood stoves.

You don't use charcoal in a foundry or forge it doesn't maintain the heat you need. You use Coal and then different types of coal are used for different applications.

I see guys cutting down trees all summer long from hunting property to use as heat in their homes. I tell them, why don't you buy a ton of coal? Save your trees for lumber. They reply the trees are free. Oh really, your time & the saw alone are worth more than the price of a ton of coal, year after year.

  I work in the HVAC field and I'm a licensed Stationary Engr., I.E. Power plant operator. I see so much waste in the ECO green movement. All most of it is, is our tax dollars funding another study or equipment re-commissioning that should have been installed correctly in the first place.

I suppose if you ran a meat smoking process you could use the excess heat from the charcoal to heat water for some sort of hydronics heat letting the smoke cure your product.
Then you'd have an excuse for the charcoal as it would be a by-product of 2 or 3 processes.

You have to get as much work as possible out of a product/process as possible to make it cost effective.

Yes I know my wife told me duck is $2.99 a per pound at Aldi’s. I could have purchased 50 for what I have in the 10 ah 7 left that the fox hasn’t killed off yet.
Well that is unless you’re doing it for fun, then it a hobby. $$$

Is charcoal ethical? Not if it's lump charcoal.

 
John Polk
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I fail to see where the pellets are a 'greener' product.  Most of it is still being made by taking branches and logs and converting them into sawdust.  It is still wood, but not necessarily "waste" wood.

The pulp wood industry is often criticized, but quite often they have utilized the turpentine, which is a byproduct, to fuel their operations.
 
Jeff Hodgins
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I've tried to make boards and its not easy, not with the saw I have anyway. But imo wood is still best left to rot and support more life in the soil
 
                                                
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John Polk wrote:
I fail to see where the pellets are a 'greener' product.  Most of it is still being made by taking branches and logs and converting them into sawdust.  It is still wood, but not necessarily "waste" wood.

The pulp wood industry is often criticized, but quite often they have utilized the turpentine, which is a byproduct, to fuel their operations.



Correct, what use to be left behind laying on the ground is now used. Stumps are another portion that should be used as well. I have walked through plenty of NY's woodlots after a logging operation and the amount of stumps and branches left behind are a staggering amount.
 
              
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Wood fuels are the only carbon neutral fuels that can even go carbon negative in the amount of sequestration they put in the soils of the managed wood lots.

Every other fuel we use is not and can not come close to wood as a fuel.

I'm planting more trees and planning wood fired bread ovens and pizza ovens now

Cheers,
PeterD
 
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blackpowderbill wrote:
Correct, what use to be left behind laying on the ground is now used. Stumps are another portion that should be used as well. I have walked through plenty of NY's woodlots after a logging operation and the amount of stumps and branches left behind are a staggering amount.



not only do the stumps need to be left the slash either needs to be left on the ground or chipped in order to keep up the soil heath for the next growing cycle
 
Troy Rhodes
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"You don't use charcoal in a foundry or forge it doesn't maintain the heat you need. You use Coal and then different types of coal are used for different applications."

Really?  Don't tell the many many primitive blacksmiths in africa.  They use what they can get, which is usually charcoal.  Also, don't tell all the shoestring, do-it-yourself casting/foundry/forge guys in this country who have used charcoal instead of "proper" coal, either because it's unavailable, or expensive, or they want to do it all themselves, or whatever.

I merely sited that as an example of why charcoal might make sense in some situations.

My foundry currently runs on propane, which I am trying to get away from.  My next design will run on used soybean oil, not coal.

Finest regards,

troy
 
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prior to "fossil" fuels, biofuels were extensively grown on farms.
Some farms were solely biofuel farms.
the fuels were pasture, hay and oats to feed horses.
a hugh market was supplying feed to "city" horses.
with the advent of motor vehicles, (cars, trucks, tractors) a lot of farms went out of business due to the loss of their market
 
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For years I used my own charcoal for blacksmithing.  Each morning I would harvest the charcoal from my wood stove, getting about a gallon per day.  Took about 3 days to get enough to complete a project. 
 
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blackpowderbill Hatfield wrote:
You don't use charcoal in a foundry or forge it doesn't maintain the heat you need. You use Coal and then different types of coal are used for different applications.



You can actually use raw wood in a forge or foundry, with some qualifications: it is a good idea to have charcoal for forge welding, and you can only melt low temp metals up to aluminum easily with a wood fire. But if you are in a sustainability situations, you should be aware that you can work metal over a wood fire.

 
Mother Tree
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Here's the video.

 
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Charcoal = biochar, except some people would say it's charcoal till it's charged. Charging is done with some nutrient (especially nitrogen) rich liquid, like compost tea or urine. And generally, if you are using it for fuel you want the chunks bigger. Though I'm lazy, and don't crush it much. But then, I'm not against a slow approach, and will mulch with char as well. Eventually it will do its job.
 
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Where necessary, morality doesn't enter into it. As with all fuel crops, the ethics of a thing depend on the context. Making biochar doesn't convert potential food or animal feed to an inedible form, but ethanol production with food crops does. That's where I see the moral dilemma. Fuel crops that rely on making ethanol or biodiesel out of inedible crops that aren't replacing food crops has the potential to be carbon neutral, or even carbon negative, depending on the context.

-CK
 
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If you lived on a piece of land and had a closed-loop system where every lump of charcoal you burned was grown on your land from trees you grew yourself, then yes, you could make a viable argument for charcoal as an ethical and intelligent choice.  

Unfortunately, charcoal production is one of the largest causes for deforestation around the world, second only to cutting down forests for new agricultural land.  Throughout the developing world, one of the easiest "businesses" one can establish is making charcoal.  Imagine a poor farmer who has marginal land and who makes a limited amount of charcoal every year for his family to use.  He goes into the forest, chops down a couple of trees, digs his charcoal pit and throws the green wood down into the pit, sets it on fire, and then covers it up with a mound of dirt that he carefully vents.  Two days later, he extinguishes the fire, digs it all up, and he's got a bunch of charcoal for his family.

But he's not the only one doing it.  Others enter that same watershed forest, chop down those trees, make their charcoal, and before long, the entire watershed has been denudded of trees.  Once the trees are gone, soil fertility quickly collapses.  Now this same group of subsistence farmers are even more desperate for income, as their land isn't producing as much as it once did.  Erosion becomes a bigger problem every year.  The stream that once ran 12 months out of the year now is dry in the non-rainy months.  Average temperatures in their watershed increase, even as average rainfall decreases.

So everyone moves over to the next watershed where the vicious cycle continues.  In less than a decade, a group of these charcoal making farmers can destroy a watershed and turn once productive farm land into desert.

This is what has deforested Haiti and many other regions of the developing world.  It's not charcoal, per se, as much as it is a vicious cycle of land mismanagement and economic cycles that push poor and desperate people into making short-term decisions that have long term negative consequences.  Soon, they aren't even trying to farm any more, but are going into "public" forests and chopping down dozens of trees a day.  The trucks laden with bags of charcoal drive into the city, one after another.  Who doesn't like the taste of their food cooked over cheep, easily obtained charcoal?  And thus, one watershed after another is destroyed.

The best organization that I know that is working to reverse these effects of deforestation is Plant With Purpose, out of San Diego.  Plantwithpurpose.org.  They work on the village level teaching farmers sustainable aggricultural techniques to reforest their land and feed their families, even as they work to reforest watersheds and bring fertility back to entire valleys.  

The next time some dork at the office says that making an extra photocopy of this or that is the cause for a tree being cut down, inform them otherwise. The cause of deforestation is a poor farmer on the side of a hill in Burundi or Haiti or Thailand who doesn't know any better and he's just trying to find a way to feed his family.  
 
Chris Kott
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So we're agreed that charcoal is fuel, not an ethical problem, and the real ethical issue is gross land mismanagement by those too poor and uneducated to do anything about it?

I am glad that Plant With Purpose has realised this and is taking steps to fix it. That is very reassuring.

I don't know if any such species exist in situ, but for my purposes, I intend to use coppicing varieties for my biochar (same issues, different end result). It just seems to make sense from a carbon sequestration and sustainability standpoint. If half the tree is the root system, a mirror image of the crown, then half the tree stays as carbon in the ground, or as plant resources for the tree to regrow itself.

-CK
 
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