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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SELC and partners criticize USDA support for biomass energy More »

In a recent letter addressed to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack, SELC and seven partner organizations challenged Secretary Vilsack’s support of biomass energy, which entails burning wood pellets for utility-scale electricity reduction. Recent increases in biomass facilities have led to harmful deforestation throughout the Southeast, yet Vilsack voiced support for the practice in a letter penned this spring to the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.

In response to Vilsack’s letter, SELC and its partners offer compelling counter-arguments to his “factually inaccurate” claims that “misrepresent scientific studies” and overstate the benefits of biomass energy.

Vilsack and industry representatives assert there is a reduction in carbon emissions when shifting from fossil fuels to biomass. SELC and partners have found “wood-burning power plants emit more carbon pollution at the smokestack than fossil-fueled plants for each unit of energy generated. Even accounting for forest regrowth, the net additional carbon pollution from bioenergy persists in the atmosphere for years to decades.”

 As U.S. wood pellet exports are expected to increase in the years to come having nearly doubled between 2013 and 2015, SELC and partner organizations continue to champion proper carbon accounting and safeguards for our invaluable wetland forest ecosystems.

SELC joined the Center for Biological Diversity, Clean Air Task Force, Dogwood Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council, Partnership for Policy Integrity, Pivot Point, and Sierra Club in signing the letter.

Learn more about SELC’s bioenergy efforts in the South.

Vilsack’s letter incorrectly contends that burning wood pellets sourced from forests in the southern United States “provides significant greenhouse gas benefits to the U.K. due to reduced fossil fuel combustion,” and “delivers compelling carbon and societal benefits to the United States.” 

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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 wetlands are at risk of clean cuts, harming our water and wildlife and increasing global warming emissions.

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. At scheduled production levels (1,365,000 dry tons/year, 80 percent hardwood input), the three Enviva wood pellet plants in northeastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia will require a 25-square mile cut of hardwood forests in the sourcing area.

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 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. 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.

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. 

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.