News | February 14, 2012

SELC releases study showing carbon impacts of burning wood for energy in Southeast

SELC today released a study of southeastern forests in the U.S. which finds that burning wood instead of fossil fuels for electricity has a short-term spike in carbon pollution before yielding longer-term reductions in the heat-trapping gas that is a leading cause of global climate change. 
The study, done on behalf of SELC and the National Wildlife Federation, also shows that as the biomass industry expands in the Southeast, this form of energy will increasingly come from cutting standing trees instead of using wood residues from sawmills and other sources.  This trend emphasizes the need to balance forest ecosystem health and related values, such as drinking water and wildlife habitat, with renewable energy.

The study, Biomass Supply and Carbon Accounting for Southeastern Forests, analyzed 17 existing and 22 proposed biomass facilities in seven states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Based on current trends in using wood for large-scale power plants and exporting fuel pellets to Europe, biomass energy in the Southeast is projected to produce higher  levels of atmospheric carbon for 35 to 50 years compared to fossil fuels. After that, biomass will result in significantly lower atmospheric levels as regrowing forests absorb carbon from previous  combustion.

The results highlight the importance for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other entities to ensure a comprehensive, “forest-to-furnace” accounting of the complex carbon cycle of using wood for energy as they determine appropriate regulations for the biomass industry.

The Southeast is seeing rapid growth in new and retrofitted power plants that will burn woody biomass to make electricity, as well as a major expansion of the wood-pellet industry, largely for export to Europe. The short-term spike followed by the long-term drop of carbon levels from these facilities poses challenging questions for decision makers in addressing both energy and climate change policy, particularly when factoring in a projected climate change “tipping point.”

Read the press release here.

Download a copy of the report here.

See SELC's map of biomass facilities in the Southeast here.