Ice Storms, Supply Chains and Fuel

Josh MacFadyen recently wrote an interesting piece on urban firewood and the Toronto ice storm of December 2013. The discussion of the Montreal wood famine of 1872 was informative and I look forward to reading the larger work that it comes out of. However, as a fuel historian there are a few things I would like to expand upon in terms of supply chains and large populations.
As fuelwood is the annual growth of plants, its production is limited by photosynthesis. As a result, there is only so much of it that can be produced and very large cities have never been primarily wood-burning. In fact, the first city to have a population significantly over 1 million inhabitants was coal-burning London in the early nineteenth century. I do not know of any city over a million residents at any point that was wood-burning. If anyone does, please let me know. The City of Toronto currently has 2.6 million residents and the Golden Horseshoe over 6 million. Given its propensity for somewhat cold winters, to supply such a population with consistent fuelwood would require around 10,000 square miles of land efficiently dedicated to producing only firewood. Fossil fuels and electricity can be generated on larger scales and are easier to ship to major cities. Without them, it would be difficult to have places as large as Toronto and it is difficult to revert.
One thing that strikes me as a fuel historian of the 18th century is that 21st century Canadians heat their houses to much higher temperatures than past people. My research focuses on England, where winter temperatures are generally warmer. The normal interior temperature was such that in 1790 medical writer James Adair warned about the dangers of overheated rooms. Those overheated rooms in winter were ones that reached 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15.5oC). Meanwhile, in Denmark it was normal to have frost inside homes in the eighteenth-century and in homes were not heated in relatively cold Iceland. It is easy to say that 21st century Torontonians are soft, but the ability to heat spacious rooms to any desired temperature represents a major improvement to the quality of life. To have this many people living to these standards is a major achievement of electricity generation, oil pipelines and modern technology. The massive energy infrastructure is fragile, as evidenced by last month’s storm and it could probably be better maintained but it cannot be replaced for a city that large.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Ice Storms, Supply Chains and Fuel

  1. Stephen Hart

    Interesting topic Dave. A few thoughts/questions. 1) where do you get the 10k sqmi of land? Any thought to use of waste wood from forestry? The wood need not come from dedicated forests but some could be from existing waste. Also, what about improvements in insulation? Could this not drastically decrease the amount of wood required? What about district heating from waste heat sources? Until you explore the other methods of obtaining heat/energy it may be overly simplistic to put out a number like 10k sqmi. I agree in principle that wood is unlikely to be a viable heat source for a whole city such as a TO, but it undoubtedly can play some role, and maximizing that role would have some very tangible benefits (lower GGs, local economy, less wood disposal cost etc).

    Stephen Hart, PhD Forest Science

  2. Steve,

    You make some good points and I should respond to them off my knowledge of 18th century English and European fuel practices. Hardwoods have usually been preferred to softwoods as they have a higher energy density and burn better. My 10,000 square miles of land was a quick calculation based upon the understanding that the maximum sustainable yield for firewood in pre-industrial Europe was 1-2 tons/acre. Those are also trees that were managed to only produce firewood with no building materials coming from the same lots. I basically assumed that hardwoods would grow on the low end of that range near Toronto and provided about 1 ton/person. This would allow for households to cook all their meals and some heating but would not provide for 2,000 square foot homes at 20 degrees. Waste wood from forestry can provide energy but in Ontario it tends to be softwood and I highly doubt that there is enough waste products from the entire Ontario forestry industry to provide for the household needs of even a city the size of Thunder Bay. I am with you that calculation and assumptions are somewhat simplistic but they were mostly to highlight the scales of land-use that are needed to go with suggestions of using wood-energy for current populations.

  3. Hi David, glad you found the article interesting, I’d be happy to share my data with you if you’re interested in the Canadian scene. It’s always good to get feedback at this preliminary stage. My paper mostly stresses the mixed nature of the Canadian urban energy supply until quite recently. I was surprised how many urban Canadians burned wood in the 20thC. As I was saying to Sean in the comments “Roughly 25,000 homes burned wood in Montreal as their primary heat source, right into the 1940s. That’s a lot of woodpiles for Canada’s Metropolis.” That doesn’t include people with secondary wood stoves or any industry. Winnipeg had a major wood fuel market in the early 20th century, and inter-war Vancouver had a large sawdust trade, but Toronto was much better connected to the coal and hydro grids by then.

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