Biomass Energy in the South

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

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Faulty assumptions translate to burning Southeast forests for European energy More »

The profile of biomass energy has been raised in recent weeks as faraway policy decisions in the European Union implicate the health of Southeastern forests. Publications in the south have responded with editorials underscoring the very real threat this poses in our backyard.

European countries are looking to Southeastern forests under the faulty assumption that burning wood pellets, called biomass, can help reduce their carbon footprint. As a result, they’re designing policies that would encourage more biomass energy, a move that translates to cutting more Southeastern forests.

Enviva, the largest producer of wood pellets in the United States with four pellet plants in North Carolina and Virginia, has been promoting these misguided European biomass policies so they can profit by sending our forests to be burned for fuel in Europe.

Just last week scientists sent a letter detailing the absurdity of considering burning forests for fuel as carbon neutral. This echoed concerns voiced earlier this year when 190 scientists from around the world signed a letter highlighting the problematic calculations behind the industry claims that biomass is a better fuel. Their key finding: “Bioenergy is not carbon-neutral and can have seriously negative climate impacts.”

In fact, burning wood pellets for electricity, particularly when sourced from clearcutting bottomland hardwood forests, such as those produced in some Enviva facilities across the Southeast, which have been documented using whole trees and other large wood, make them a source of carbon emissions.

Clearly biomass is not the answer in our search for cleaner fuels. Instead the focus, here in the U.S. and abroad, should be on genuinely clean, carbon free energy sources like wind and solar.

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Clear Standards Needed for Emerging Fuel Source

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 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 (2,400,000 dry tons/year) of the four operating Enviva wood pellet plants in North Carolina and Southeast Virginia, as well as the proposed plant in Hamlet, North Carolina, will require harvesting approximately 70 square miles of forests each year.

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. The analysis predicted that Drax would emit another 12 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2017—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. 

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 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.