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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Industry attempts to undo carbon calculations for biomass in Senate bill More »

The U.S. Senate is expected, this week, to adopt language in its version of the federal energy bill that would undo years of progress toward recognizing the environmental impacts of the wood pellet industry.

The proposed amendment, championed by Senator Susan Collins of Maine, would require that all branches of federal government view energy produced by burning biomass, like wood pellets, as carbon neutral. This assumption of neutrality allows the planting of young trees to offset the carbon produced by burning more mature ones. Carbon is a major contributor to climate change so governments around the world are looking to devise policies that promote cleaner, less carbon intensive fuels.

While there was some initial excitement about the potential for wood pellets to help move economies away from coal, a closer examination has revealed that biomass fuel sources present their own challenges. One recent study showed that burning wood pellets, especially those manufactured from mature trees, can produce more than four times the carbon caused by burning coal. At least one wood pellet company in the Southeast admitted to using whole trees, which are often logged from wetland forests, rather than the marginal, low quality wood sources originally advertised as the pellet base.

The language in the Senate amendment also is contrary to the approach to biomass laid out by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the Clean Power Plan released last year. There, thanks in part to SELC efforts, the EPA agreed that the carbon impact of biomass energy varies depending on the source, which is a crucial distinction.

While passage of the Collins language could negate the EPA methodology, the language would also need to be adopted by the U.S. House of Representatives but has not yet been introduced.

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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.