The manufacture of wood pellet bioenergy might increase demand for renewable energy from US forests and boost prices, even if questions about increasing CO2 emissions remain without clear answers.
According to a recent US Forest Service study, current policies in the European Union (EU) and elsewhere requiring the use of renewable and low-greenhouse-gas-emitting energy are driving demand for wood pellets used to generate bioenergy. Such a demand could provide new markets for US timber exports, increase wood prices, and lead to increases in forestland area. The study was published by the Forest Service’s Southern Research Station (SRS).
Karen Abt, lead author of this economics-centric report on wood pellets for bioenergy, stated: “Southern forests and some northern forests as well, are being used to produce pellets for export to the EU. Current and proposed production levels have the potential to increase prices, but may also lead to an increase in timberland area.”
Abt’s research targeted stimulating timber markets in the US Coastal South through the year 2040. The research weighed EU renewable energy policies that might drive production of southern wood pellets for bioenergy.
As the report surmises, this form of bioenergy using wood pellets represents a sustainable energy practice that can be referred to only as a “low-greenhouse-gas-emitting energy.”
While renewable energy may sound nice, bioenergy is not necessarily clean energy. It only complicates the overall emissions conundrum. Campfires were always wonderful places to relax and stay warm, but they have never been emissions free, no matter how good they might smell and look, and those emissions harm human health.
“Burning wood pellets to produce electricity is on the rise in Europe, where the pellets are classified as a form of renewable energy. But in the US, where pellet facilities are rapidly being built, concerns are growing about logging and the carbon released by the combustion of wood biomass,” writes Roger Real Grouin for Environment 360.
Returning to Abt’s report on supply and demand basics: “We know people plant more when prices go up. We also know that they keep more natural forest as forest when prices go up.”
Abt and her team based their initial research on EU policy, the Renewable Energy Directive, which requires a 20% contribution from renewables to the energy use of all EU Member States by 2020. However, it is now clear the EU requirements will extend even longer, which likely means an even greater impact. “The EU has already extended its renewable requirement through 2030,” Abt said, adding that the new requirement also increases the amount of bioenergy required to 27%.
Concerning wood pellets for bioenergy, Abt points out that much remains unknown about the interactions among policy, economics, and forestry.
“There are studies underway by the EU Environment Agency on the effects of the Renewable Energy Directive on the sustainability of southern forests,” Abt said. “If new requirements are adopted, this could affect use of southern forests for pellet production for export to the EU. All indications are that pellets from southern forests will meet the current EU requirements.”
As Drouin puts it: “The wood pellet industry says that it overwhelmingly uses tree branches and other waste wood to manufacture pellets, making them a carbon-neutral form of energy. But many environmentalists and scientists believe current industry practices are anything but carbon-neutral and threaten some of the last remaining diverse ecosystems in the southeastern U.S., including the Roanoke River watershed surrounding the Ahoskie, N.C., plant and longleaf pine ecosystems near the large Enviva wood pellet mill in Cottondale, Fla.”
Photo Credit: Hand picking wood pellets via Shutterstock
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