Environmental groups try to stop use of whole trees as biomass fuel

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Dogwood Alliance said May 28 that they have launched “Our Forests Aren’t Fuel” to raise awareness of the growing practice of logging forests for fuel for biomass-fired power plants.

At the forefront of burning trees logged from Southern forests for electricity are some of Europe’s largest utility companies, including Drax, Electrobel and RWE, said the environmental groups. Rising demand by these companies has resulted in the rapid expansion of wood pellet exports from the Southern U.S. The American South is now the largest exporter of wood pellets in the world.

Recent analyses indicate there are 24 pellet facilities currently operating in the Southeast, and sixteen additional plants planned for construction in the near-term, the groups said. Market analysts project that annual exports of wood pellets from the South will more than triple from 1.3 million tons in 2012 to nearly 6 million tons by 2015. All of the South’s largest domestic utilities, including Dominion Resources (NYSE: D) and Duke Energy (NYSE: DUK), are also beginning to burn wood with plans for expansion in the future, they added.

The Virginia Electric and Power unit of Dominion Resources plans to complete the conversion late this year of the Southampton, Altavista and Hopewell coal plants to burning entirely biomass. Virginia Electric’s new Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center coal plant is also designed to burn a small amount of biomass.

“With the advancement of clean, renewable energy alternatives, the growing practice of burning trees for electricity is a major step in the wrong direction,” said Debbie Hammel, Senior Resource Specialist of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Our Forests Aren’t Fuel lets the public know about the extent of this ecological devastation and calls on utilities to end the practice. It’s an even dirtier form of energy production than burning fossil fuels, it destroys valuable southern ecosystems, and it isn’t necessary.”

“This rapidly expanding trend of burning trees for energy will both accelerate climate change and destroy forests,” said Danna Smith, Executive Director of Dogwood Alliance. “Southern forests not only protect us from climate change, but protect our drinking water, provide habitat for wildlife and contribute to our quality of life. We need these companies to stop burning trees for electricity and embrace a clean energy future that helps to protect, rather than destroy forests.”

Energy from biomass has been widely promoted as a form of renewable energy along with technologies like solar, wind, and geothermal. Over the past two years, however, mounting scientific evidence has discredited biomass from forests as a clean, renewable fuel, the groups said. Recent scientific reports document that burning whole trees to produce electricity actually increases greenhouse gas pollution in the near-term compared with fossil fuels and emits higher levels of multiple air pollutants. This fact, combined with the negative impacts to water resources and wildlife associated with industrial logging have discredited whole trees as a clean fuel source, the groups said.

But current European and U.S. renewable energy policies and subsidies encourage the burning of trees as a “renewable” source of energy for power generation. Companies like Maryland-based Enviva, the South’s largest pellet manufacturer, are grinding whole trees into wood pellets to be burned in power stations in Europe while also supplying wood to domestic utilities like Dominion. Georgia Biomass, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the German utility RWE Innogy, is also manufacturing millions of tons of wood pellets annually to be burned in European biomass facilities, the groups said.

Companies say their biomass projects are sustainable solutions

One issue here is whether whole trees are being cut as biomass feedstock, or whether wood waste is being used to fuel power plants. Said the Dominion website about the Southampton, Altavista and Hopewell conversions: “The fuel will primarily be derived from waste wood typically left behind in the forests as part of the logging process for roundwood. Roundwood is harvested to make lumber, pulp & paper, or wood pellets. Waste wood is the smaller tree tops and branches left behind after roundwood harvesting.”

The Dominion website added: “The conversions from coal to biomass fuel will benefit Dominion’s customers, the environment and Virginia as a whole, and will produce renewable energy certificates that can be optimized for customer benefit. These projects were selected as a reasonable and cost-effective means of addressing customers’ growing need for reliable electric service, and they are expected to provide customer savings over their 25-year lives when compared to continued operation of the units on coal. The biomass conversions will also have numerous benefits to Virginia’s environment, including reductions of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and mercury compared to continued coal operations, and they will meet all of EPA’s existing or proposed regulations.”

An Enviva fact sheet on its sustainability practices said, among other things: “In addition to the benefits of sustainable harvesting on forests, younger trees absorb a greater amount of carbon than old-growth trees. Therefore, methodically replanting trees or cutting trees to encourage new tree regeneration from stumps provides greater carbon benefit than leaving trees untouched.”

The Enviva fact sheet added: “Enviva produces wood pellets from both processed and unprocessed wood residues. Our processed wood raw materials include chips, bark, and sawdust by-products from wood processing facilities. Unprocessed residues include tree tops, branches, stumps, and other forestry debris remaining after the primary biomass (or the tree trunk) has been processed and shipped from the forest. These unprocessed residues would most likely otherwise go unused as a resource. Additional biomass sources currently include low-grade round timber.”

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.