The Natural Resources Defense Council says that forests in the southeastern U.S. are threatened by a growing demand here and in Europe for wood to fuel the production of electricity, a practice that produces more carbon pollution than coal, gas and oil.
The “massive” fuel needs of electric utilities could double logging rates and “significantly” increase carbon emissions, the organization claims in a statement on its website.
“Until recently, electricity produced by burning plant material — called biomass energy — was widely considered an important ‘renewable’ resource — along with technologies like solar, wind, and geothermal,” the NRDC says. “But biomass was never meant to include whole trees, much less entire forests.”
The group said recent evidence discredits the use of whole trees to produce power because it increases carbon pollution while simultaneously destroying ecosystems “that can never be replaced.”
Demand ‘skyrockets’ in Europe
The United States was the largest exporter of wood pellets in the world in 2012 as demand for wood fuel increased sharply in Europe, the NDRC says.
As reported on a website for the North American Biomass Pellet Export Conference, wood pellets will help European countries meet their 20% renewable energy goals by 2020. Demand should hit 32 million tons by 2016 and rise to as much as 335 million tons a year by 2020.
“These manufacturers clear forests, grind the trees into wood chips and ‘wood pellets’ and ship them from ports in the Southeast to ports in Western Europe,” the group says. “Last year alone, wood pellet exports from Southern ports increased 70 percent.”
The group discounted claims by electric utilities and pellet manufacturers that burning wood to make electricity is essentially carbon neutral because the amount of carbon released when the wood is burned is the same as the carbon the trees have absorbed from the atmosphere as they grew.
Trees are about half water by weight, the NDRC says, so they have less energy potential than coal or other fossil fuels. “In other words, to get the same amount of energy from trees as from fossil fuels, many more trees have to be burned, resulting in 40 percent more carbon emissions at the smokestack per unit of energy generated.”