New U.K. Report Marks “Beginning of the end” of Wood Pellet Boom and Harvest of Native Southern U.S.
CHAPEL HILL, N. C. — A report released today by the chief science advisor to the United Kingdom energy agency on the carbon effects of burning wood biomass for energy will significantly change UK energy policy with significant implications for the rapidly expanding wood pellet industry in the southern United States.
The science report, prepared by the independent scientist at the U.K. Department of Environment and Climate Change exposes what a growing number of scientists and scientific reports have found: the broad assumption that burning wood for energy production is “carbon neutral” and preferable to reliance on coal or natural gas in terms of reducing heat-trapping carbon in the atmosphere is incorrect and flawed.
The report uses a comprehensive model to calculate the carbon emissions associated with the burning of wood pellets, and finds that burning wood pellets made from whole trees from southeastern U.S. forests may emit four times as much carbon as the burning of coal.
“This new report from the major importer of wood pellets from the southern United States should give great pause to both existing producers of wood pellets in the region, and especially those considering new pellet mills for export to Europe” said Derb Carter, director of the North Carolina Office of the Southern Environmental Law Center.
As of 2015, all power generators in the UK that burn biomass will have to meet sustainability criteria to receive critical subsidies. In response to the carbon report, UK and US science and policy experts are pushing the UK government to follow the report's findings and deny subsidies to generators who cannot demonstrate actual carbon benefits.
Most of the demand for wood pellets in Europe is for energy production in the UK so the report and potential policy change holds particular significance given the proposed expansion of the wood pellet industry in Southeastern states. Enviva has constructed three wood pellet production facilities in northeastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia and an associated export facility in Chesapeake, Virginia. At its existing pellet mills, Enviva has sourced pellets from natural hardwood forests. It has proposed constructing three more pellet mills in southeastern North Carolina and central South Carolina, and with the State of North Carolina, has proposed constructing a wood pellet export facility at the Wilmington, North Carolina port.
In contrast to other European countries, the United Kingdom planned to rely significantly on burning wood – instead of other alternatives such as solar and wind – to meet a European Union mandated goal of 20 percent of energy production from renewable resources by 2020.
This demand for wood pellets in the United Kingdom has fueled a rapid expansion of the wood pellet industry in the southern United States, which is the major sourcing area for wood biomass for UK utilities. Some of these wood pellet producers have focused on harvesting whole trees, including natural forests and even wetland forests, to meet pellet production needs.
“Without government subsidies in Europe, this wood pellet export industry would not exist. This science report and potential policy change on subsidies is the beginning of the end of sourcing wood pellets from natural forests in the southern United States,” said Carter.
The report examines a range of sources of wood biomass, from sawdust residues from sawmills to whole trees from natural forests. The “carbon neutral” assumption arises from the assumption that trees would regrow and consume the carbon put in the atmosphere through burning wood for energy, but the report finds that assumption fails to fully examine that different sources of wood for biomass have dramatically different impacts on carbon in the atmosphere. The new report concludes that many of the potential sources of wood biomass result in more carbon pollution in the atmosphere compared to burning coal or natural gas over 40 and even 100 year time horizons.
The Southern Environmental Law Center is a regional nonprofit using the power of the law to protect the health and environment of the Southeast (Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama). Founded in 1986, SELC's team of more than 60 legal and policy experts represent more than 100 partner groups on issues of climate change and energy, air and water quality, forests, the coast and wetlands, transportation, and land use.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this press release misinterpreted the UK government's statements regarding its subsidy policy. While the UK government plans to tie its sustainability criteria to carbon emissions reduction targets as of 2015, the sustainability criteria do not currently incorporate the comprehensive carbon accounting assessment used by the DECC carbon report. In response to the report, UK and US policy experts and scientists are pushing the UK government to incorporate its latest carbon accounting methodology into the sustainability criteria.
NOTE: Press release updated August 26, 2014 to reflect clarification of UK DECC’s announcement