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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U.K.’s abandonment of coal could threaten Southern forests More »

While President Trump is doubling down on coal as an energy source, British Prime Minister Theresa May vowed this week to give up the dirty fossil fuel by 2025.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined May for the announcement and the commitment to end their countries’ reliance on a fuel that has filled the atmosphere with heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

The news was greeted globally as an affirmation that world industrial powers are able to chart a course to cleaner power sources.

However, one area viewed the announcement with trepidation:

The South.

For the last decade, states including Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia have hosted factories that turned wood into fuel pellets and shipped them to the United Kingdom. There, power plants that burned coal now burn wood pellets that once stood as Southern forests.

But that process has proven fraught with two significant downsides. Studies now show burning wood pellets produces more – not less – heat-trapping carbon dioxide. And to meet the U.K.’s escalating demand for wood pellets, U.S. suppliers have had to rely on harvesting whole trees instead of using only waste wood.

That, says SELC’s David Carr, is a direct threat to Southern forests.

“If the United Kingdom fills the coal gap with wood pellets, that will further boost a market that is already clear-cutting timber to meet demand,” he said. “Worse, we’ll lose acres upon acres of valuable forests to export a fuel that loads the atmosphere with even more carbon dioxide. That’s a losing proposition all around.”

Wood pellets, often called “biomass,” were traditionally created from sawdust and sawmill residue. But as the U.K. demand for wood pellets grew, U.S. companies began chopping entire trees to keep up.

Carr said, to meet present demand, the wood-pellet company Enviva in eastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia will need to cut about 100 square miles of forest each year.

More demand would mean more clear-cutting, he said.

“Eliminating coal from power production will improve the planet’s atmosphere and combat global warming,” Carr said. “But the replacement must be clean, renewable energy like wind and solar. We can’t just ditch one pollution source for another that’s easily just as bad. And those who value their Southern forests surely don’t want them scalped and packaged for export.”

Related: North Carolina’s environmental agency neglects to hold public hearing for polluting pellet plant, via Southeast Energy News

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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. 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 more than 17 square miles of hardwood cuts 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 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 is likely 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. 

Ensure Sustainable Sourcing

To help the South accommodate a measured level 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 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.