The Southern Environmental Law Center said July 24 that a report by the chief science advisor to the United Kingdom energy agency on the carbon effects of burning wood biomass for energy may put a big damper on that industry.
Already in response to the report, the U.K. Department of Environment and Climate Change (DECC) announced that beginning next year, government subsidies will not be provided to wood biomass sources that do not meet a carbon reduction target.
“These new carbon and wood pellet subsidy policies 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.
The U.K. report finds that 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.
Most of the demand for wood pellets in Europe is for energy production in the United Kingdom so the report and subsequent policy change holds particular significance given the proposed expansion of the wood pellet industry in southeastern U.S. states. Enviva has constructed three wood pellet production facilities in northeastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia and an associated export facility in Chesapeake, Va., the center noted. 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 port of Wilmington.
In contrast to other European countries, the United Kingdom plans to rely significantly on burning wood – instead of other alternatives such as solar and wind – to meet a European Union mandated goal of 20% of energy production from renewable resources by 2020.
“Without government subsidies in Europe, this wood pellet export industry would not exist. This science report and announced government 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 new policies should shift any remaining wood biomass sourcing in the southern United States to residual wood products such as sawdust, and in some cases existing artificial pine plantations, which may meet the new carbon reduction requirements in the U.K. and qualify for subsidies, the center added.
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 have dramatically different impacts on carbon in the atmosphere. The report concludes that many of the potential sources of wood biomass result in more carbon pollution in the atmosphere compared to burning coal over 40- and even 100-year time horizons.
U.K. develops calculator to look at wood sourcing impacts
The DECC said that a scientific calculator has been developed that investigates the impact on carbon emissions of biomass sourced from North America to produce electricity. The calculator finds that biomass, when sourced responsibly, can be used in a low carbon and sustainable way.
Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey said: “In the short term, biomass can help us decarbonise our electricity supplies, and we are committed to supporting cost-effective, sustainably produced biomass. This calculator shows that, done well, biomass can offer real carbon savings – which is why we are tightening our rules for sustainable biomass. Any producer who doesn’t meet those standards will lose financial support from next year.”
The Bioenergy Emissions and Counterfactual (BEaC) Model, developed by DECC, can be used by developers to help make sure they are sourcing their biomass responsibly. This is the first model published by government to take account of changes in the amount of carbon stored in forests over the lifetime of a biomass project.
“In the short term, converting coal plants to biomass can play an important part in our transition to a low-carbon energy supply, and will contribute towards meeting our 2020 renewables target,” the DECC said. “By 2020 biomass could account for around 10% of the electricity generated in the UK. This is enough to meet the annual needs of around 8 million homes.”
The U.S. Industrial Pellet Association (USIPA) said July 24 that it welcomes the release of the calculator, which it said can play an important role in demonstrating that biomass from the U.S. produced from sawmill residues, thinnings, and other low-value fiber can significantly reduce greenhouse gas and carbon emissions.
USIPA Executive Director Seth Ginther said: “We are pleased to see the UK take the initiative to create a tool that will verify that responsibly sourced biomass is sustainable and carbon beneficial. This calculator, along with the UK’s strong sustainability requirements for biomass, can help policy makers with understanding the industry, and assist producers with ensuring their product is sustainable.
“However, it should be noted that the calculator does not consider the economic, regulatory, and social conditions that also promote sustainable forest management in the U.S. The UK government should use the BEaC calculator in conjunction with these aspects of the industry to determine the full carbon benefits that the biomass life-cycle can bring.”