WILMINGTON — Biomass fuel is a growing part of the alternative energy industry. It’s also part of an international controversy that spans between North Carolina forests and power companies in Europe and the UK.
Biomass fuels, frequently found in the form of condensed wood pellets, are seeing increasing use as a replacement fuel for coal in Europe and the United Kingdom. But, while biomass power plants are springing up on the other side of the Atlantic, the trees, which ultimately provide their fuel, are grown in the U.S., particularly in Virginia and North Carolina.
Many of these wood pellets are shipped through the Port of Wilmington by the Enviva company. The company’s – and Wilmington’s – pivotal role in the industry promises to bring money and jobs to the region; it has also brought controversy.
Carbon neutral, or not?
Enviva has promoted the biomass industry as carbon-neutral, a claim the company said is backed by the Sustainable Biomass Program (SBP), an industry certification program.
Related story: Enviva’s Port of Wilmington facility comes online
According to Seth Ginther, executive director of the U.S. Industrial Pellet Association, the SBP is designed to maintain legal and sustainable sources.
“Under SBP, biomass producers are required to report greenhouse gas emissions throughout the supply chain, from sourcing, to production, to transport,” Ginther said.
That reporting does not include the actual burning of wood-pellets.
Ginther argued that “carbon from biomass is a cycle, whereby wood absorbs carbon in the atmosphere over its lifetime and then releases that carbon back into the atmosphere once burned for energy to be re-absorbed by standing forest stocks.”
In essence, proponents of biomass have argued that – because the forest stocks maintained by biomass companies will eventually reabsorb carbon – the cycle is carbon-neutral.
Dr. Robert Parr disagreed. Parr, a retired physician, is one of several speakers who will address a “Wood Pellet Forum” at UNCW at the end of September. Parr will join other environmentalist speakers to tackle what organizers have described as “the science behind the industry, including the social, health, and international impacts, and legal issues with the industry.”
Parr said the SBP misrepresents the carbon output of burning wood pellets.
“What companies like Enviva will tell you is that the practice is carbon neutral, but in fact if you look at a 40-year time frame, wood pellets produce two times the carbon as burning coal. If you look at that next hundred years, they put three times the carbon into the atmosphere,” Parr said. “They claim the forests will reabsorb the carbon, and that’s true, but it will take 30 years to re-absorb the carbon released from this year’s operation.”
Parr added that, in addition to being environmentally harmful, the biomass industry is also unsustainable, and has only survived because it has been “propped up by taxpayer money.”
Companies like Enviva initially sprung up to capitalize on biomass programs across the Atlantic, specifically in the United Kingdom where biomass power plants are considered green energy, and are heavily subsidized by the government; over the last two years, British power company Drax – which purchases wood pellets from Enviva and also has its own tree sourcing operations in the U.S. – has received over 1 billion pounds, or about $1.36 billion dollars, from U.K. taxpayers.
“It needs those taxpayer dollars because the business model makes no sense, it can’t stand on its own,” Parr said. “It’s success right now is based on a political decision in Europe to consider the practice carbon-neutral. And so, right now, that’s where the wood pellets are being burned, but there is definitely a movement to do so here as well,” Parr said.
Interest has indeed been growing in the U.S. The consolidated federal budget signed by President Trump on May 5 of this year included a section on biomass energy (section 428 of the budget, which you can read here). The budget law directs future energy policies to “reflect the carbon-neutrality of forest bioenergy and recognize biomass as a renewable energy source, provided the use of forest biomass for energy production does not cause conversion of forests to non-forest use.”
The budget also includes suggestion for private investment in bioenergy, but also “State initiatives to produce and use forest biomass.”
There are a range of other issues – from legal, health and environmental – that will also be discussed at the forum. One key issue, raised by Adam Macon and Sasha Stashwick on behalf of the environmental group Dogwood Alliance, revolves around how the forest stocks used to create wood pellets are raised and managed. The two argue that the biomass industry has inadequate means of gauging the sustainability of their own practices.
It’s a charge Ginther adamantly denied.
“The claim that there is insufficient verification within the wood pellet supply chain is false and is a claim that the Dogwood Alliance has been peddling for years,” he said. “U.S. wood pellet producers hold fiber sourcing and chain of custody certificates from leading, internationally-recognized forestry certification schemes. Wood pellet supply chains are independently audited by third parties and verified on a routine basis, and sustainability and greenhouse gas data is reported to European power generators, who in turn report that information to EU and Member State regulators. Much of this information is publicly available.”
Ginther added that biomass forest stock accounted for “less than 0.1% of the forest inventory in the U.S.”
Wood Pellet Forum
The Wood Pellet Forum will be held on Friday, Sept. 29, from 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. at the UNCW Warwick Center, located at 4941 Riegel Road. Parking will be available in Lot M. The event will beheld. More information about the forum is available here.
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at firstname.lastname@example.org, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.