Enviva’s Port of Wilmington facility comes online, helps turn the tide on climate change

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One of Enviva’s storage domes at the Port of Wilmington. (Photo Benjamin Schachtman)

WILMINGTON — The effects of climate change leave low-lying port cities like Wilmington the most seriously at risk. But a North Carolina company’s new facility at the Port of Wilmington is trying to turn the tide.

Enviva Wilmington Holdings, LLC, produces wood pellets, a kind of biomass fuel. These tiny pellets of pulverized wood may not sound intriguing but they could help save cities like Wilmington from rising seas and increasingly violent hurricane activity.

The wooden pellets made by Enviva are used throughout the United Kingdom and the European Union, and can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by between 74  and 94 percent when they replace coal, according to a study conducted by the Environmental Agency of the UK. Part of this reduction comes from the creation and maintenance of renewable forestland, which supplies in large part the wood for biomass fuels and also helps to absorb carbon from the air.

Enviva’s wood pellets are made from low-grade wood fiber, wood with size defects, disease or pest-infestation that would render it unusable by lumber industries. Enviva’s facilities are certified by the Forest Stewardship CouncilSustainable Forestry Initiative and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certifications. Thus, what would be a waste product can become a green power source.

The wooden pellets are used in conjunction with coal as a transition fuel and on their own, in biomass energy plants. They are also used both in industrial-scale and household heaters. 

According to Vice President and Treasurer Ray Kaszuba, construction of Enviva’s site is “substantially complete” and they expect to send their first shipment out this month (Enviva has contracted with the Port of Wilmington to ship at least a million tons of wood pellets next year).

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Maersk, one of the shipping lines that will connect Enviva with the UK. (Photo Benjamin Schachtman)

While it may initially seem counterproductive to ship fuel from the United States to England, Kaszuba said the efficiency of maritime shipping actually makes it more practical: “Shipping a ton of pellets from the Southeast U.S. to England results in less carbon emissions than trucking that same ton from northern Scotland to England.”

Meanwhile, domestic use of biomass fuels has been limited. Kaszuba explained that “Biomass is being adopted in some parts of the US where supportive renewable energy policies exist. Europe has a cohesive EU-wide policy mandating carbon reduction and encouraging the rapid adoption of renewable energy strategies including biomass.”

Enviva was founded in 2007 and in 2015 its Wilmington expansion began construction of the massive semi-spherical domes that dominate the Port of Wilmington’s north side. The domes, which are designed to withstand severe hurricanes and earthquakes, store the pellets in bulk; they can be loaded directly from trucks and train cars and dispensed along a shielded conveyor into the hold of ships. This efficient method of storage and handling further reduces the carbon impact of the pellets.

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Enviva’s conveyor system, which can load pellets directly into the hold of a ship. (Photo Benjamin Schachtman).

Enviva expects the Wilmington terminal to employ 34 people, have a $16.9 million total annual impact on the economy of southeastern North Carolina and contribute over $400,000 in state and local tax revenue in 2017.