Biomass energy was the first energy source.  Wood for fuel and housing helped build civilizations, and its depletion led to the fall of civilizations, as John Perlin has shown in his book Forest Journey.

Today, when we think of bio-energy, we usually think of   ethanol and bio-diesel, along with second-generation cellulosic biofuels systems for internal combustion engines.

But a large portion of the world’s population cannot afford a car; they depend on wood for cooking fuel and candles for lighting.   According to energy analysists, they live at the bottom rung of the “energy ladder.”  And, as they become more developed, on an individual and national scale, they move “up” to LP gas and kerosene.  According to the 2005 Encyclopedia of Energy:

Traditional fuels, such as firewood and dung, are relatively inconvenient to collect and store, require constant management while in use, and emit large quantities of smoke that has a detrimental impact on the health of the users. Modern fuels, such as natural gas and electricity are more convenient, cleaner to use, have power outputs that are easily controlled, and can be delivered directly to the kitchen (once the basic transmission and distribution infrastructure is built). The energy ladder or energy transition embodies the idea that as household income rises through the development process, they choose to utilize modern fuels and choose not to utilize the traditional fuels. (Cleveland, 2005)

An historian might well caution that this approach is “whiggish,” in that it celebrates the status quo.  We need to be careful of loaded concepts such as “modern fuels” and a hierarchical energy “ladder,” and consider instead what might be a range of wise uses for  existing resources in preference to moving up the “ladder” and increasing dependency along with convenience.

It’s often noted that the world’s biggest energy crisis, for most of its population, is not oil supply but rather the lack of fuel wood.  The question is not whether billions of people can move “up” the energy ladder, but rather, how to best employ the most renewable resource of them all – human ingenuity.

To illustrate the fuel wood problem, consider this video:

To illustrate the alternatives to the “ladder” concept, consider these solutions:  

Improved wood stoves:

Bio-gas digesters

Village scale photovoltaic lighting


Bio-tech India  

Building a “KT1, KT2” model in the Biogas Support Program in Vietnam. ( – Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IVPart V  


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