Updated: Sep 10, 2021
The name clean energy evokes images such as wind turbines dotting the landscape, rooftop solar panels, or utility scale solar constructed on rural farmland. What does not come to mind is a picture of forestland branches cut, logged, churned into two by fours, and then shipped off to Europe as wood pellets. And yet, despite this image, wood pellets have become an industrial-scale market, driven by a 2009 European Union (EU) Renewable Energy Directive.
Enviva Biomass Facility, Northampton County, NC from Dogwood Alliance
This directive, which required member nations to generate at least 32 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2030, drove the wood pellet industry in the United Kingdom when published guidelines encouraged utilities to burn wood pellets to meet European Union standards. The United Kingdom remains the top pellet consumer, with 9 million metric tons in 2019, followed by Italy at 3.3 million metric tons and Denmark at 2.5 million metric tons. The biggest supplier of wood pellets quickly became the rural United States Southeast, including North Carolina.
The EU Directive said that clear cut wood would not add to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere because the trees eventually grow back. But the IPCC notes that it takes a payback time for forests to offset that carbon up to 100 years, depending on the type of forest. And the EU standard does not consider emissions from the environmental impact of burning wood pellets, nor does it consider the environmental impact of shipping the wood pellets from North Carolina to Europe.
Enviva has eight plants throughout the Southeast, including four in North Carolina within communities of above-average poverty levels and populations that are at least 25 percent nonwhite (Northampton, Hertford, Sampson, and Richmond counties). The company has quickly emerged as the world’s largest producer of wood pellets, generating more than half their pellets in North Carolina and with all product shipped overseas. Eniva has plans to nearly double exports to 7.1 million tons per year by 2025. The map below shows the concentration of wood pellet sources in the United States.
Source: National Renewable Energy Lab
There may be some changes coming. A thorough review of the EU Renewable Energy Directive is expected this month. In 2020, the EU examined its carbon reduction goals under the Paris Agreement. At the end of December 2020, EU President Ursula Von der Leyen increased the EU’s carbon emission commitment to 55 percent of 1990 levels within a decade, and British Prime Minister Borris Johnson announced that he wanted the UK – who left the EU in January 2021 - to cut greenhouse gases by 68 percent from 1990 levels by 2030.
President Biden and EPA Administrator Michael Regan have not clearly stated their position on forest biomass. Regan’s position when he was at NC Department of Environmental Quality, however, was that he didn’t see a future in wood pellets, especially when it is more cost-effective and cleaner to use other forms of energy generation. Governor Cooper’s Clean Energy Plan does not include wood pellets, but regardless Enviva is still able to get permits to expand operations here in the Tar Heel state. On a basic level, it is hard to be supportive of North Carolina’s resources being used to power another country.
Regardless of what happens with the EU, North Carolina should do a study to look at the wood pellet industry in more detail, on everything from its environmental impacts to the role of private landowners and incentives. Thoughtful study always leads to the best public policy.