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.

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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 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 heat trapping emissions causing 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. 2,600,000 dry tons/year) of the five operating Enviva wood pellet plants in North Carolina and Southeast Virginia, will require harvesting over 47,000 acres or 73 square miles 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. (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 2018 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, commission by SELC and the National Wildlife Federation, found that burning wood pellets produced by Drax Biomass’ own 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.

 

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 South's natural resources, SELC is calling for:

An end to UK and EU subsidies for this high carbon electric power source, including

  • 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;
  • 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.  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.