Biomass Energy in the South

Sustainable Sourcing: SELC is calling for clear standards that prevent the conversion of native forests into energy crops.


Photo © Robert Llewellyn

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Clear Standards Needed for Emerging Fuel Source

As the world 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 has taken off in the South, a region known for 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. Mature forests are at risk of being converted into energy plantations and valuable wetlands are being clear cut, harming our water and wildlife and increasing heat trapping emissions linked to climate change.

Increased Demand for Wood Pellets

In response to increasing demand from Europe, the wood pellet industry is focusing 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 Europe. The production capacity (2,500,000 dry tons/year) of the four operating Enviva wood pellet plants in North Carolina and Southeast Virginia, as well as the near complete plant in Hamlet, North Carolina, will require harvesting over 45,000 acres of forests each year.  Further expansions are anticipated at several of these facilities within the next year, with Enviva requesting over 600,000 dry tons/year in combined production increases. 

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 than burning coal. Even if trees cut down for energy production are replanted, the climate impacts may 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. and heavily reliant on hardwood forests would be 3.4 times higher than continued use of coal over 100 years. An updated analysis in 2017 also commission by SELC found that Drax, a power plant in the U.K. that has converted three 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 2017, Drax emitted over 12 million tons of carbon dioxide from burning biomass —an annual amount of carbon dioxide emissions approximately equal to the U.K.’s total annual goal for reducing carbon emissions.

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.

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  deeper look at threats to the Southeast's wildlife and biodiversity from the destructive sourcing practices of the woody biomass industry. 

Ensure Sustainable Sourcing

To help protect the South's 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 sawdust and other residue from lumber milling, and clean construction debris;
  • Small diameter thinnings cut from existing pine plantations; and
  • Other energy crops, such as switchgrass, grown on previously fallow land.

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. Wood-burning 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.