In 2012, the U.K.’s Department of Energy and Climate Change published its guidelines regarding new British renewable energy policy. These guidelines encouraged the transition of coal-fired electrical generation plants to biomass or wood pellet burning plants, as a way for utility companies to meet European Union air pollution and renewable energy standards. Burning wood pellets to generate electricity has been touted as a renewable energy source because it requires new trees to be grown, offsetting the carbon released by the burning of the trees that preceded them.
European officials had declared biomass energy as carbon neutral, back in 2009. Along with the U.K, Denmark, Belgium, and the Netherlands have also invested heavily in the transition. Shortly after the guidelines were released, European power companies began looking to the well-established and much less restricted logging industry that exists in the Southeastern United States, to be its primary supplier of pelleted wood. Since then, the wood pellet industry in southeastern states has grown “from almost nothing to 23 mills with capacity to produce more than 10 million metric tons annually for export.”
Many foresters, economists, and environmental policy experts have supported the transition in the E.U., but a growing number of ecologists, conservationists and others have voiced their strong disagreement, pointing to the negative impact the growing industry has had on Southeastern forest ecosystems and surrounding communities, as well as a miscalculation of the new fuel’s climate impact. New EPA Administrator Michael Regan has thus far recommended against designating wood pellets as a source of “clean energy” and a spokeswoman for the EPA has said the agency is not “currently considering adding most wood pellets to its renewable fuel standard.” Doing so would open up doors for the industry to expand even further.
Critics of the new industry have successfully forced the installation of pollution controls at various mills, and the Dutch Parliament even recently banned subsidies for new biomass plants. As well, the European Union is expected to announce sometime this year, new regulations for sourcing wood pellets. Regardless, the industry in the southeastern United States continues to grow, with permits recently filed for a dozen new mills, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center. According to Consuelo Brandeis, a research forester with the United States Forest Service, “about 3 percent of harvested wood from the South goes to pellets,” sourced from a rural “patchwork of mostly privately owned hardwood forests, swamps, farms, small towns and pine trees.”
Wood pellets are primarily used to replace coal as a fuel for generating electricity. Seth Ginther, executive director of the United States Industrial Pellet Association, says wood pellets are a “low-cost, low-carbon alternative” to coal and that “wood biomass is lower in sulfur, nitrogen, ash, chlorine, and other chemicals than coal and traditional fossil fuels.” William Schlesinger, a biogeochemist and member of the US Environmental Protection Agency advisory board, admits that “burning wood can result in lower emissions than coal if managed and certified properly and could be used as a “bridge fuel” as solar and wind energy continues to expand.” However, Schlesinger says, “When you cut down existing trees and burn them, you immediately put carbon dioxide in the air. None of the companies can guarantee they can regrow untouched forest to capture the same amount of carbon released. The whole renewable forest industry is kind of a hoax in terms of its benefit as climate mitigation.”
Tim Searchinger, a researcher at Princeton, agrees with Schlesinger, calling it “a critical climate accounting error.” Searchinger says, “Wood is a sucky fuel,” noting that “Wood releases more carbon dioxide per unit of electricity produced than coal or gas, and a newly planted tree can take decades to reabsorb the carbon dioxide emitted by burning.” This miscalculation also fails to consider the emissions associated with shipping the pellets all the way to Europe. Schlesinger says, “If you burn young trees and regrow them, it might not be too bad. If you venture into older trees or forests that have never been cut before, that can be very bad. … Philosophically it looks good but practically it looks pretty bad in many cases.”
When Enviva, the self-proclaimed world’s largest pellet producer, opened its first mill in Ahoskie, North Carolina, in 2011, the company promised it would source its wood primarily from “wood residues [(or waste wood)], such as treetops, branches and sawdust with no other market.” Jennifer Jenkins, Enviva’s Chief Sustainability Officer, says the company’s sourcing is sustainable because “it buys only from landowners who commit to regrow trees, and because the Southeast’s forests overall are expanding.” Jenkins also argues that “Pellet demand creates an incentive for landowners … to grow more trees, which suck up more carbon, offsetting the carbon dioxide emitted from power plant smokestacks.”
Some forestry experts and economists agree with Jenkins, but many environmental groups, including the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Southern Environmental Law Center, and the Dogwood Alliance, an environmental nonprofit based in Asheville, North Carolina, are less optimistic. Some report that “they have documented truckloads of logs and whole trees, not just leftovers, entering pellet mills.” Derb Carter, a lawyer for the Southern Environmental Law Center, says, he and colleagues “have tracked some of Enviva’s source material to bottomland forests that have some of the nation’s highest tree biodiversity.” In 2016, the southeastern Atlantic Coastal Plain was declared a “biodiversity hotspot,” recognized for “both its unique plant species and its rate of habitat loss.”
Accusations of Enviva’s bottomland hardwood harvesting concerns Bob Abt, professor of natural resource economics and management at North Carolina State University. Abt says using hardwood trees from bottomlands results in a different carbon calculation” than when using softwoods. He says, “Using these species of trees requires a much longer time to make up for the released carbon, as bottomland hardwoods grow more slowly.” As Gert-Jan Nabuurs, a professor of forest resources at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, calculates, “the Southeast might be able to sustainably supply 35 million metric tons of pellets annually, roughly three times today’s production capacity.” However, as Nabuurs notes, “pellets cannot replace fossil fuels.” He says, “If indeed the whole world starts to ask for pellets, then things go out of control, … That’s very obvious.”
However, Enviva and many private landowners see the challenge as an opportunity. Jenkins is correct that demand for wood pellets incentivizes landowners to grow more trees, but that is not as idyllic as it sounds. One such landowner, Owen Strickler, owns 6,000 acres of woods in Virginia, described by Enviva as a model system for sustainable sourcing. Strickler has planted his acreage into “a mosaic of different-age loblolly pine stands.” In this system, “When one area is harvested, Mr. Strickler sprays the native hardwoods that pop up with herbicide and plants more fast-growing loblollies.” The softwood loblolly pines are useful in that they sequester carbon much faster than native hardwoods, but their cultivation encourages the use of herbicide and discourages the proliferation of native forests. Such a model could prove promising on land already disturbed and open, such as fallow farmland, but if this system requires existing hardwood forest to be clear cut first, it may lose its credit of sustainability.
Francisco X. Aguilar, a researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Umea, recently led a study measuring the carbon held in forests of the Southeastern United States. He found that the forests in areas surrounding existing pellet mills are holding on to more carbon than other forests further away, but he points out that his data “revealed potentially concerning trends.” Aguilar says his study found “fewer standing dead trees and losses of carbon from the soil of forests near mills in the Southeast, suggesting the pellet industry may be taking wood that otherwise would have decomposed on site, feeding the soil.”
Enviva claims it now only harvests wood from bottomlands “it considers non sensitive and that these provide only 1 percent of its supply.” The company says its sourcing practices now go above and beyond industry standards, and it disputes multiple claims by the Dogwood Alliance that trees are being harvested from sensitive wet bottomlands.
Supporters of the industry commend the much-needed creation of rural jobs, noting that the industry in the southeastern U.S. “employs more than 1,000 people directly, and has boosted local logging and trucking businesses.” Opponents, however, point out that, according to an analysis by the Dogwood Alliance, pellet mills “are 50 percent more likely to be located near “environmental justice-designated” communities, defined as counties with above-average poverty levels and a population that’s at least 25 percent nonwhite.”
Kathy Claiborne, a resident of Garysburg, N.C., one of the state’s poorest counties and largely African American, says, “I can’t even recall the last time I had a good night’s sleep,” due to the noise coming from the nearby pellet mill that arrived in 2013 and runs non-stop. Claiborne also says she wears a mask when she goes outdoors, “because dust from the plant can make it hard to breathe.” Residents located near pellet mills in other parts of the Southeast complain of air pollution and new respiratory illnesses as well.
Lisa Sanchez, a resident of Woodville in East Texas, also home to the large German Pellets manufacturing plant, says she was always in good health until the pellet mill arrived. She says when the mill began operating, “I started having a lot of respiratory problems, I was getting sick all the time,” adding that she wouldn’t open the windows because “the air felt more sooty than fresh.” Sanchez says she is “not anti-industry but believes that regulations need to be tightened.” Additionally, a number of pellet mills have been found to pose a danger to both the environment and humans in more ways than one. “An analysis by the Environmental Integrity Project found that at least eight of the 15 largest US wood pellet facilities have had fires or explosions since 2014, while 21 mills exporting to Europe emit excessive greenhouse gases and pollutants.”
It is accepted by most that if done properly and at a limited scale, the wood pellet industry can act as an effective temporary supplement to other renewable sources of energy, such as wind and solar. However, the debate is still out as to the industry’s viability as a sustainable large-scale energy source. At least 500 ecologists, conservationists, and other scientists have written to various heads of state, including President Biden, “urging them to reject wood burning as a tool for fighting climate change.” Perhaps we should heed the words of over 100 of those scientists who wrote in a letter to the governor of North Carolina, “Removing the carbon dioxide emitted from burning trees for electricity requires waiting decades to a century for trees to regrow. Not only are those offsets not verifiable nor enforceable, we cannot afford to wait that long: to stave off the worst effects of climate change, it is imperative that we reduce emissions and increase our forest carbon sinks now.”
The Dogwood Alliance – Dogwood Alliance
- For over 25 years, Dogwood Alliance has worked with diverse communities, partner organizations and decision makers to protect Southern forests across 14 states. They do this through community and grassroots organizing, holding corporations and governments accountable and working to conserve millions of acres of Southern forests.
The National Resources Defense Council – NRDC
- Whether in California or Chicago, India, or Canada, we help protect communities around the world. We combine the expertise of some 700 scientists, lawyers, and advocates with the power of more than three million members and online activists to confront our planet’s most pressing problems.
The Southern Environmental Law Center – Southern Environmental Law Center
- The mission of the Southern Environmental Law Center is to protect the basic right to clean air, clean water, and a livable climate; to preserve our region’s natural treasures and rich biodiversity; and to provide a healthy environment for all.
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Drouin, R. (2015, January 22). Wood pellets: Green energy or new source of CO2 emissions? Retrieved May 09, 2021, from https://e360.yale.edu/features/wood_pellets_green_energy_or_new_source_of_co2_emissions
Popkin, G., & Schaff, E. (2021, April 19). There’s a booming business in America’s forests. Some aren’t happy about it. Retrieved May 09, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/19/climate/wood-pellet-industry-climate.html
Schlesinger, W., et al. (2017, November 15). Scientist’s Letter to Governor Cooper [Letter written November, 2017 to Governor Roy A. Cooper III]. Retrieved May 9, 2021, from https://www.dogwoodalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Scientist-Letter-to-Governor-Cooper_11-15_2017.pdf