Report raises concern about rising biomass use in southeast U.S.

The rapid development of woody biomass energy facilities in the southeast U.S. has large implications for regional land cover and wildlife habitat, says a new study by three major Southern universities, released Dec. 5 by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC).

The southeastern U.S. is currently experiencing what is likely the world’s most rapid growth in the development of woody biomass energy facilities, with dried wood pellet exports from southern ports increasing 70% last year—making the Southern U.S. the largest exporter of wood pellets in the world, the report noted. These wood pellets are often burned in power plants to reduce greenhouse gas impacts.

“The surge in demand for Southeast trees is being driven by government incentives—here and abroad—designed to encourage renewable energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” said Julie Sibbing, Senior Director of Agriculture and Forestry Programs at the National Wildlife Federation. “This study shows that wildlife like the brown-headed nuthatch and eastern spotted skunk are at risk from this rapidly growing industry if policies are not put in place to ensure more sustainable sourcing solutions.”

The study looked at the impacts from several biomass pelletizing and power projects around the southeast region, including: the 60.5-MW Piedmont Green Power facility in Georgia, which has a 20-year power purchase deal with Georgia Power; the 49.95-MW South Boston Energy project in Virginia, which will sell power to Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative; and Dominion Virginia Power’s new Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center in southwest Virginia, which mainly burns coal but is designed to burn up to 20% biomass.

There are a number of biomass projects in the region that aren’t in the sample used in the report. For example, this year Dominion is completing the conversions of three small, little-used coal plants in Virginia to biomass as their fuel.

The National Wildlife Federation and the Southern Environmental Law Center commissioned this independent scientific study by a multi-disciplinary team from three major Southeastern land grant universities—University of Georgia, University of Florida, and Virginia Tech. The researchers analyzed land cover and determined areas of highest risk of harvesting around the six examined facilities located in Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia, with sourcing areas stretching into Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia. The researchers then applied various limits on biomass sourcing to evaluate how each scenario would overlap with habitat for several wildlife species of conservation concern.

Key findings from the study include:

  • Major conservation concerns for biomass in the Southeast are land cover change away from existing natural forest stands into planted pines, harvesting in wetlands, and uncertain habitat impacts from increased use of residual logging materials.
  • All of the operations studied have the potential to alter wildlife habitat and impact biodiversity in the absence of sustainable sourcing policies.
  • For facilities using planted pine trees, risks to native forests and wildlife habitat can be decreased through adoption of existing sustainable forest management standards that preclude native forest conversion.
  • Sourcing of natural forest stands for bioenergy may pose more serious conservation challenges. Increased harvest of riparian and other wetland forests for bioenergy may pose especially high risks to wildlife habitat and forest regeneration. New sustainability policies may be needed to ensure conservation of wetland forest habitats under increasing bioenergy sourcing pressure.

The study points to several existing sustainability programs that could be the basis for wildlife-protective sourcing policies. These include the Forest Stewardship Council forest management certification and certification by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials. The study points out, though, that there are no current policies that require such sustainability standards to be used. 

“Without sustainable sourcing criteria, increased bioenergy sourcing in Southeast forests could exacerbate historic practices such as conversion of natural upland forests to planted pines and intensive logging of forested wetlands,” said Jason Evans, environmental sustainability analyst at University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government. “These practices are known to have negative impacts on a number of wildlife species. However, regular thinning of existing planted pines for bioenergy use could also improve habitat conditions for some species of concern, such as the northern bobwhite quail. The methods and results of this study provide guidance for up front evaluation of such risks and opportunities as new bioenergy facilities are being planned across the region.”

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.