It’s a good time to be in the American wood pellet business. Dozens of manufacturers, increasingly concentrated in the Southeast, are now approaching production of 10 million annual short tons of wood pellets — ostensibly made from the leftovers at lumber mills or from the branches, slash and other woody material found on the forest floor. Another 6 million short tons of capacity is now planned or under construction, according to industry data, making the U.S. the single largest wood pellet producer in the world.
To a large extent, these pellets will end up as fuel for massive municipal boilers in Europe, where wood is increasingly replacing coal as a means of producing heat and electricity — a move that many governments there consider comparatively clean and climate-friendly. Exports from the U.S., largely headed to E.U. nations, doubled between 2012 and 2013, jumping from 1.6 million short tons to 3.2 million short tons, according to federal statistics, with some industry speculators guessing that those numbers — nudged by tough emissions goals that European nations must meet in the next five years — could increase 10-fold by 2020.
The story is similar globally. Data published last month by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization indicate that worldwide wood pellet production in 2013 swelled by 12 percent, year over year, reaching 25 million short tons — with nearly 60 percent of that volume traded internationally. Data from Navigant Research suggests that global revenues from biomass power generation could reach $11.5 billion annually by 2020.
And yet all of this unfolds as a long-simmering debate over the precise environmental and climate impacts of the wood-pellet boom — and of bio-based energy in general — remains largely unsettled.
In theory, biomass-based heat and power ought have a low-carbon footprint if new vegetation, which absorbs CO2, survives or is planted at a rate and density that offsets the carbon pollution released when harvested wood is processed, shipped and burned. Limiting the raw material for making wood pellets to forest debris and the pulpy residues from timber mills would, by most accounts, keep this delicate carbon balance intact — and one new study, led by U.S. Forest Service scientists and published last week by the Forest Service’s Southern Research Station, even suggests that a well-maintained industry could lead to an expansion of CO2-absorbent forest land.
Another recent analysis, co-authored by researchers at the University of Georgia, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Yale’s School of Forestry & Environmental studies, attempted to compare emissions for coal-fired power in the UK to electricity generated there using wood pellets imported from North America. Modeling nearly 1,000 different harvesting, manufacturing and shipment scenarios, the team concluded that the “use of imported wood pellets for electricity generation could help in reducing the United Kingdom’s [greenhouse gas] emissions” — though they added that more research was needed.
To critics of the industry, this all seems a bit too simple. Short-term increases in carbon dioxide emissions, they say, are inevitable, given that wood is far less energy-dense than coal. This means that utilities must burn a lot more wood — and create substantially more greenhouse gas in the process — to obtain the same unit of electricity as coal.
Further, canceling out those emissions with new trees and other vegetation unfolds on long timescales that aren’t particularly helpful in the immediate effort to curb global warming. And in any case, attempting to maintain a fragile carbon balance amid a burgeoning biomass trade involves a mind-boggling number of potentially confounding variables. As it stands, critics argue, little regulatory oversight is in place — or really even possible — to ensure that a global biomass-power industry proceeds sustainably.
In November, a coalition of conservation organizations sent a petition to European leaders — signed by some 50,000 Americans — asking them to curb the E.U.’s voracious wood pellet appetite, which they say threatens America’s southern forests.
“European leaders are usually ahead of the game when it comes to climate solutions,” Peter Lehner, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, noted at the time of the petition, “but this is one misguided policy that needs to change.”
For all the concern, there are few signs that the wood pellet boom is slowing down — and not everyone considers that a bad thing. The Georgia Forestry Commission noted last year that in that state alone, the number of wood pellet mills went from precisely zero in 2007 to nine facilities in 2013, creating hundreds of jobs and generating millions of dollars in additional revenue — with more plants in development. Meanwhile, shiny new export facilities are being built from Wilmington, N.C., to Pascagoula, Miss. — and a variety of spots in between.
Among the newest projects are two wood pellet mills slated for North Carolina’s Richmond and Sampson counties, unveiled by the state’s governor, Pat McCrory, in September. The two facilities, to be built by the Maryland-based biomass giant Enviva with an investment of $214 million, would create a total of 160 permanent jobs by the end of 2017, the governor’s office said.
“Enviva is one of the fastest-growing companies in the wood pellet industry,” McCrory noted in a prepared statement at the time. “It turns byproducts of saw-timber harvests into renewable fuel that is in great demand around the world.”