Biomass Energy in the South

SELC is calling for an end to UK and EU subsidies supporting clearcutting SE U.S. forests for power generation in the UK and EU.


Photo © Robert Llewellyn

Forests Should not be Burned for Power Production

As the world looked for clean alternatives to fossil fuels, the energy contained in trees emerged as a power source for electric utilities and heating systems. The wood pellet export industry has exploded in the South, a region known for its vast tracts of forestlands.

Mature forests including highly valued wetlands are being clear cut, harming our water and wildlife and increasing the heat trapping emissions that cause climate change.

Increased Demand for Wood Pellets

In response to heavily subsidized demand from Europe, the wood pellet industry  has zeroed in on sourcing wood from the Southeastern United States. Much of this wood is whole trees that are clear cut and hauled to pellet facilities for eventual export to the UK and Europe. The production capacity (approx. 3,110,000 dry tons/year) of the five operating Enviva wood pellet plants in North Carolina and Southeast Virginia, requires harvesting approximately 57,000 acres or 89 square miles of forests each year.  Further expansion of the industry throughout the southeast is also anticipated. In 2019 alone, wood pellet mills throughout the region received permits to construct an additional 3.5 million tons per year of wood pellet capacity, with even more production capacity being sought by wood pellet companies in 2020.  

Keep Carbon Pollution in Check

America's forests serve as carbon "sinks" that absorb 12 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 hour than burning coal. Even if trees cut down for energy production are replanted, the climate impacts can be serious. 

A 2015 Spatial Informatics Group analysis (pdf) commissioned by SELC found that the net lifecycle emissions of heat trapping carbon dioxide from the burning of wood pellets from the southeast U.S. (heavily reliant on hardwood forests) would be 3.4 times higher than continued use of coal over 100 years. An updated analysis in 2017 found that Drax, a huge power plant in the U.K. that has converted four of its coal-fired units to biomass, emitted 31.3 million tons of carbon dioxide from its burning of biomass between 2013 and 2016. In 2019 alone, Drax emitted over 13 million tons of carbon dioxide from burning biomass —an amount of carbon dioxide emissions that exceeds the U.K.’s total annual goal for reducing carbon emissions by 3 million tons.

A 2012 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. Moreover, a 2019 Spatial Informatics Group analysis, commissioned by SELC and the National Wildlife Federation, found that burning wood pellets produced by Drax's U.S. wood pellet mills for electricity in the UK results in an increase of carbon pollution in the atmosphere for more than 40 years, well beyond the timeframe necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.  This carbon debt occurs even though the Drax pellet mills use wood from “sustainably managed” forests (i.e., pine plantation thinnings).

In addition, a 2013 study (pdf) also commissioned by SELC and the National Wildlife Federation found that rapid development of woody biomass energy facilities in the Southeast U.S. has large implications for regional land cover and wildlife habitat.  A 2018 report by SELC provides a deeper look at threats to the Southeast's wildlife and biodiversity from the destructive sourcing practices of the woody biomass industry.

Strong Restrictions on Forest Biomass are Needed to help protect the climate and the South's natural resources, SELC is calling for:

  • An end to UK and EU subsidies for this high carbon electric power source;
  • Restrictions on the use of whole trees and the conversion of native forests into energy crops;
  • keeping national forests off-limits to biomass extraction, especially in the ecologically rich Southern Appalachians; and
  • protection of old growth forests, streams and wetlands, wildlife habitat, and other natural treasures.

Biomass for power generation should be limited to:

  • Wood waste, such as sawdust and other residue from lumber milling, and clean construction debris;
  •  Feedstocks for which a full life-cycle carbon analysis shows a clear net climate benefit during the timeframe identified by the IPCC as critical to addressing climate change.

To learn more about SELC’s efforts to end UK biomass subsidies, please view the website for the joint campaign, Cut Carbon Not Forests.

Protect Air Quality

Wood as an energy source may technically be renewable, but burning it produces harmful pollutants besides CO2, such as nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, hazardous air pollutants, and microscopic dust particles that contribute to serious health risks.  Pellet production facilities must use the most effective pollution controls available.  In 2019, Enviva agreed to install state-of-the-art pollution controls at its Richmond County, North Carolina facility pursuant to a settlement reached with SELC and others.  The new controls will reduce harmful emissions of volatile organic compounds and hazardous air pollutants by at least 95%, providing protection to the health of those living close to the facility.  Enviva and others must meet the same standards at all their facilities.