From the initial roar of a chainsaw to a North Carolina tree’s final incineration in a British power plant, the wood pellet industry disguises itself as a purveyor of renewable energy. But science shows that the practice of burning wood on a utility scale not only damages forest biodiversity, it also releases more carbon into the air per megawatt than coal.
The risk to sensitive wildlife habitats. The contributions to climate change. The destruction of prime timberland to feed a foreign fix for fuel to replace coal: The state’s timber and forestry interests failed to mention these concerns at yesterday’s meeting of the Joint Energy Policy Committee.
The purpose of the committee meeting was to give industry representatives an opportunity to address lawmakers about forms of renewable energy: battery storage, hydropower, biograsses and biomass, aka trees — which are “renewable” only in the sense that they can regrow over decades.
The meeting also allowed forest interests to soften the ground for the upcoming short session, when it’s expected lawmakers will introduce timber indistry-friendly legislation. That could include further strengthening the “Right to Practice Forestry” law passed in 2005 and cementing financial incentives for landowners who want to timber their property.
“We’ve been shipping wood to Europe since colonial times,” said Chris Brown, senior director of communications at the NC Forestry Association, trying to assure lawmakers that the practice has a storied history.
Yet since those colonial times, North Carolina has lost immense swaths of its forests. In fact, an NC State study showed that only four percent of the state’s longleaf pine stands remain. Urbanization, agriculture, the furniture industry, pulp and paper plants, and more recently, wood pellets, have all put pressure on the state’s forests.
Pro-timbering forces argue that the state’s forests are growing. That depends, however, on how one defines forests — and it doesn’t necessarily mean the presence of chirping birds and rustling leaves. “There’s a deeply ingrained misconception among the public and policymakers,” of what a forest is, said Adam Macon, program director for the Dogwood Alliance. “If you have a forest that’s clearcut and gone, it’s counted as forest. The only way a forest becomes not a forest is when it’s developed for a non-forest use, like a subdivision or agriculture.”
Forestry interests emphasize that the wood pellet industry relies on waste wood — tree tops and other detritus from logging operations. “We’re consuming low-grade, low-value material,” said Clay Alitzer, a utilization forester with the NC Forest Service. “I don’t think we’re pelletizing high-quality wood.”
And the definition of “low-value” again, hinges on who is doing the valuing. A low-value tree is one that’s unsuitable for saw timber. “As trees grow older, they tighten up and knot, Macon said. “You can have a healthy forest made up of low-value and waste wood.”
Older “low-value” trees also store immense amounts of carbon; once cut, the trees release those carbon stores into the atmosphere, contributing to greenhouse gases, and in turn, climate change.
Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat who sits on the energy committee, said she’s “less sanguine about chopping down trees to send pellets to Europe for fuel that can emit more carbon dioxide than coal. It’s bad for the planet.”
Enviva, a major wood pellet manufacturer with three factories in North Carolina and one on the way, indicated in its own internal documents that 59 percent of its source material comes from whole hardwood trees. These hardwoods are often cut down in sensitive wetland areas, and can be well over 50 years old.
When trees are cut, they release stored carbon into the atmosphere. Transporting logs or waste wood on diesel trucks further adds to the greenhouse gas emissions. At the factory, like those owned by Enviva in Garysburg, Ahoskie and Faison, the process of drying and pelletizing the wood emits more carbon and other chemical compounds into the air.
Even the most rigorous forest replanting schedule can’t keep pace with the massive carbon releases from the cutting and burning of trees.
(The emissions also create environmental justice issues because the plants are often located near low-income areas or communities of color. Enviva’s plant near Dobbins Heights in Richmond County is in such a neighborhood.)
Southern forests provide virtually all of the utility-scale wood pellets. During the first half of 2016, according to the Energy Information Administration, US manufacturers produced 3.3 million tons of wood pellets and sold 3.1 million tons, mostly to the United Kingdom’s Drax power plants.
The route to the UK is circuitous and carbon-intensive. From Enviva’s North Carolina plants, the pellets are usually shipped by diesel trains to the Port of Wilmington. From there, diesel-powered ships carry the fuel across the Atlantic to England and the Netherlands. Soon, the pellets could be shipped through the Panama Canal and over the Pacific to Japan and South Korea. Once at their destination, the pellets are fed into old coal plants that have been retrofitted to burn wood.
The reason the United Kingdom has turned to wood is that it and the European Union have agreed to reduce carbon emissions by 20 percent by 2020, from 1996 levels. In addition, the fuel is cheap because the pellet industry receives massive government subsidies in Europe.
But the way these countries are calculating carbon emissions involves creative bookkeeping. First, they measure only the carbon used to make the pellets and transport them from the US — not the carbon emissions that leave the smokestack.
Second, these energy companies and affiliated forest interests consider burning wood to be carbon neutral because the trees are replanted. However, depending on the species, it can take decades for trees to grow enough to store their original amounts of carbon. And that’s not counting the amount of carbon released from the tree when it’s cut.
By declaring wood carbon neutral — ignoring all reputable science — the power plants then claim they have essentially zeroed out their carbon emissions from coal. Voila, they’ve met their required reductions goal.
Derb Carter, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has studied the pellet industry, compared these accounting procedures to “being paid off the books.” The UK and EU are supposed to pay for their use of trees in a “land use account.” But those accounts apply only to UK and European forests, not those in the US, their main supplier. “There’s no compensation for that here,” Carter said.
“The best thing that can happen with forests is to let them grow and expand the carbon sink,” Carter added. “It’s insane to burn trees to put more carbon into the atmosphere.”
The destruction of forests also upends the habitats that depend on them. Alan Weakley is an ecologist, botanist and director of the UNC Herbarium, a department of the NC Biological Garden. He spoke about forest biodiversity at a Wood Pellet Forum co-sponsored by the Dogwood Alliance at UNC Wilmington last fall.
The North American Coastal Plain, which includes eastern North Carolina, is a “global hotspot” for biodiversity, Weakley said. The region teems with flowering plants, freshwater fish, mussels, amphibians and reptiles, and the wildlife that feed on them.
Forests serve other purposes: To protect water quality, help prevent soil erosion and control flooding. Yet since the late 1950s, the South has lost 37 million acres of natural forest, only to be replaced by 42 million acres of pines. It’s not a fair deal.
When the forests are replanted solely in pine, it creates a monoculture that’s not only susceptible to disease but also reduces the biodiversity. Certain animals, plants, fungi and aquatic life thrive under specific conditions. When those conditions are eliminated, the biodiversity is lost.
The future of wood pellets, and in turn, North Carolina’s forests, hinges in part on European demand. In the UK and the EU, demand has leveled off, Bob Abt professor of forestry at NC State said. And despite its own deforestation problems, South America could compete with the US for the Asian markets. It would be cheaper to ship pellets from the Chilean coast for example, than the Port of Wilmington.
In the US, widespread utility-scale wood pellet plants are unlikely, Abt told Policy Watch, because fracking and natural gas “took over that entire space.”
Yet, Duke Energy attempted to get wood pellets classified as renewable energy in 2007. That’s when lawmakers passed the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard. Under the REPS, as it’s known, public utilities must buy or generate a certain percentage of their energy from renewable sources. That percentage increases over time.
REPS lists biomass as a renewable source: waste wood, sawdust, limbs and the like. However, the law is ambiguous. Environmental advocates read it to mean that the REPS does not allow the cutting of whole trees. Duke Energy interpreted the law differently.
After the law was passed, Carter said, Duke Energy asked the state utilities commission to determine that the definition of biomass did include whole trees. The SELC intervened in the case, and Carter remembers that experts testified there wasn’t enough waste wood to fuel a power plant; whole trees had to be cut.
The utilities commission sided with Duke and allowed the company to use whole trees. But Duke later abandoned the idea and focused on solar energy instead, Carter said.
Without Duke, North Carolina has no utility-scale wood-fired power plants. However, there is still interest in using trees as fuel. The NC Bioenergy Research Initiative just awarded more than $143,000 to NC State University to study the viability of using loblolly pines as an energy source. Another $84,000 went to Carolina Land & Lakes, a nonprofit in the western part of the state, for small wood pellet heating systems, including those used in poultry houses. The Bioenergy Research Initiative is part of the state Department of Agriculture.
Environmental advocates want to create new incentives for property owners to keep their forests intact rather than allow them to be timbered. Conservation easements are the go-to tactic, but they require a byzantine level of legal knowledge to execute. Selling carbon offsets could be one solution, except the price of carbon is so low, Abt said, “the only landowners willing to join the market are those that probably wouldn’t be harvesting or depending on forest income anyway.”
The forestry industry sees a tree as a commodity, not necessarily a building block of ecosystems — and therefore, the planet.
Ninety percent of southern forests are privately owned. Along the North Carolina Coastal Plain, large corporations own about half of the pine plantations; the other half are non corporate owners who want to earn money off their timber. There aren’t a whole of large acreages where money doesn’t matter,” Abt said.
The idea that natural resources have inherent value outside of the marketplace had little traction within the committee. Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Duplin County Republican, spoke of a “magnificent Creator” who gave humans natural resources to use. Timbering for wood pellets is legitimate, Dixon said, “as long as we do it carefully and not overextend it.”
Perry Hunt, founder and president of timber company Hunt Forest Resources, viewed trees without sentiment: “Timber is an asset. People look at it as a return on investment.”