Biomass Energy in the South
Clear Standards Needed for Emerging Fuel Source
SELC releases study showing carbon impacts of burning wood for energy in Southeast
SELC today released a study of southeastern forests in the U.S. which finds that burning wood instead of fossil fuels for electricity has a short-term spike in carbon pollution before yielding longer-term reductions in the heat-trapping gas that is a leading cause of global climate change.
The study, done on behalf of SELC and the National Wildlife Federation, also shows that as the biomass industry expands in the Southeast, this form of energy will increasingly come from cutting standing trees instead of using wood residues from sawmills and other sources. This trend emphasizes the need to balance forest ecosystem health and related values, such as drinking water and wildlife habitat, with renewable energy.
The study, Biomass Supply and Carbon Accounting for Southeastern Forests, analyzed 17 existing and 22 proposed biomass facilities in seven states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Based on current trends in using wood for large-scale power plants and exporting fuel pellets to Europe, biomass energy in the Southeast is projected to produce higher levels of atmospheric carbon for 35 to 50 years compared to fossil fuels. After that, biomass will result in significantly lower atmospheric levels as regrowing forests absorb carbon from previous combustion.
The results highlight the importance for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other entities to ensure a comprehensive, "forest-to-furnace" accounting of the complex carbon cycle of using wood for energy as they determine appropriate regulations for the biomass industry.
The Southeast is seeing rapid growth in new and retrofitted power plants that will burn woody biomass to make electricity, as well as a major expansion of the wood-pellet industry, largely for export to Europe. The short-term spike followed by the long-term drop of carbon levels from these facilities poses challenging questions for decision makers in addressing both energy and climate change policy, particularly when factoring in a projected climate change "tipping point."
Read the press release here.
Download a copy of the report here.
See SELC's map of biomass facilities in the Southeast here.
As the nation looks for renewable alternatives to fossil fuels, the energy contained in trees, grasses and other plants is emerging as a power source for cars, trucks, electric utilities, and heating systems. This new industry is starting to take off in the South, a region known as the "fiber basket of the world" due to its vast tracts of forestlands.
But without proper safeguards and clear definitions of what constitutes a renewable energy source, the use of biomass could backfire, turning mature forests into energy plantations, harming our water and wildlife, and increasing global warming emissions.
Keeping Carbon in Check
America's forests serve as carbon "sinks" that absorb and hold some 10 percent of the heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions the U.S. pumps out each year. Burning trees to generate electricity releases this CO2 and, in fact, can produce more carbon emissions per megawatt than burning coal. Even if trees cut down for energy production are replanted, the climate impacts may be serious.
A study (pdf) jointly commissioned by SELC and the National Wildlife Federation found that wood is not an inherently carbon-neutral energy source, as the power industry has claimed. Based on consumption trends in our region, using wood to generate power here or to make fuel pellets for power generation in Europe is projected to produce higher levels of atmospheric carbon than fossil fuels for 35 to 50 years. After that time, carbon levels will begin to fall as regrowing forests absorb CO2 from previous combustion, but it may be too late to avoid irreversible effects on the climate system.
Ensuring Sustainable Sourcing
To help the South reap the promise of bioenergy without degrading its natural resources, SELC is calling for clear standards that
- restrict the use of whole trees and prevent the conversion of native forests into energy crops;
- keep national forests off-limits to biomass extraction, especially in the ecologically rich Southern Appalachians; and
- ensure protection of old growth forests, streams and wetlands, wildlife habitat, and other natural treasures.
Under such standards, acceptable bioenergy sources would include:
- Wood waste, such as "slash" left over from timber harvesting, sawdust and other residue from lumber milling, and construction debris;
- Thinnings and small-diameter pulpwood cut from existing pine plantations; and
- Other energy crops, such as switchgrass, grown on previously fallow land.
Protecting Air Quality
Wood as an energy source may be renewable, but burning it produces harmful pollutants besides CO2, such as nitrogen oxides and microscopic dust particles that contribute to serious health risks. Wood-burning facilities must use the most effective pollution controls available.