By John Upton
Oct. 21, 2015
SOUTHAMPTON COUNTY, Va. - A truck laden with tree trunks pulled into an unloading zone at a dusty mill. The driver stepped out, into the sapping Southern heat. In a single sweep, a crane hoisted the load off his trailer, depositing it atop a much larger stack of trunks. As he drove off for his next load, another truck pulled in behind him, ready to repeat the industrial ritual. This scene plays out all through the day here, day after day. In satellite pictures, the towering mounds of leafless trees — all of them destined to become wood pellets — resemble thousands and thousands of sepia-toned pick-up sticks.
An American company named Enviva, the world’s biggest producer of wood pellets for power plants, built this mill near Virginia’s border with North Carolina in 2012. It’s a noisy amalgam of metal equipment that billows steam over a 120-acre site, which was carved from thick forest. Bulldozers move massive piles of woodchips. Convoys of trucks deliver logs and chips from nearby logging sites. A separate convoy hauls the finished pellets off to a port, to set sail to be burned in foreign lands.
The mill eats through a million tons of wood every year. Mills like it began popping up in rural areas like this in Virginia and North Carolina between 2006 and 2010, spurring logging during an economic downturn. This one opened just outside the city limits of a forlorn town that’s home to a modest forest-based industry and a long strip of chain stores. Nearly a quarter of the 8,500 residents of that town, Franklin, Va., live in poverty — double the state average.
But Enviva’s young business is thriving. It is now operating, building or acquiring four pellet ports and seven pellet mills, from Virginia to Florida, across to Mississippi and Alabama. The industry’s expanding footprint this year reached Louisiana, where a British power company began operating a pellet mill and a wood pellet port. Currently, there are 27 wood pellet mills scattered across the Southeast producing pellets for European power plants, and at least 25 more mills are being planned.
The wood at Enviva’s mills, and at all the mills like it, is ground down, heated up, dried out and pressed into hard pellets one to two inches long. So much moisture is baked out of the wood that a ton of tree trunks produces only half a ton of pellets. The wood pellets are trucked from mills to ports along the Eastern seaboard and Gulf Coast, then shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to the U.K., Belgium, the Netherlands and other nations, where they’re burned for electricity, pouring carbon dioxide into an overheating atmosphere.
As the world struggles to cope with the flooding, drought, and heat-wave disasters that climate change is amplifying, producing these finger-sized pellets in America and burning them in Europe is throwing fuel on a global climate crisis. The power plants are based in Europe, but it’s American forests that are doing the most to feed their boilers.
“The consequences are very serious,” said Tim Searchinger, a research scholar at Princeton University whose work focuses on bioenergy. He is a prominent critic of the use of wood energy. “It takes a massive amount of trees to make a very small amount of energy.”
Burning wood pellets to produce a megawatt hour of electricity produces 15 to 20 percent more climate-changing carbon dioxide pollution than burning coal, analysis of Drax data shows. And that’s just the CO2 pouring out of the smokestack. Add in pollution from the fuel needed to grind, heat and dry the wood, plus transportation of the pellets, and the climate impacts are even worse. According to Enviva, that adds another 20 percent worth of climate pollution for that one megawatt hour.
Felling the trees needed to produce those pellets contributes to climate-changing deforestation. Most of the trees are being cut down in American states where forests lack environmental protections. This is particularly true in the Southeast, one of the planet’s most biologically diverse and heavily logged regions.
Scientists and environmentalists agree that wood energy can sometimes help the environment. The main factors that determine whether it could help save the planet — or help destroy it — are the scale of the operation and the source of the wood. Using sawdust and mill leftovers to heat and power a school in a Pacific Northwest timber town may help. Cutting down forests to fuel an international energy market will not.
“You do biomass wrong, and you’re going to have big carbon impacts, big ecosystem impacts, big public health impacts,” said Nathanael Greene, director of the renewable energy policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an American nonprofit that campaigns against the use of wood pellets in power plants. “It can be every bit as damaging as burning coal.”
The U.S. pellet industry quickly grew too big to rely on logging and sawmill waste. The American logging industry’s ups and downs are rooted in construction sector trends — and experts say it wouldn’t be feasible for Europe’s power plants to depend on an undependable flow of its trash wood. “I can’t see the energy industry having its feedstock affected by a housing cycle,” said Robert Abt, a forestry professor at North Carolina State University. “You just can’t build a significant energy sector from picking up the slash from a cyclical lumber industry.”
The wood pellet mills are paying for trees to be cut down — trees that could be used by other industries, or left to grow and absorb carbon dioxide. And the mills are being bankrolled by climate subsidies in Europe, where wood pellets are replacing coal at a growing number of power plants.
The subsidies are being spent on wood energy because of an entrenched loophole in European Union energy rules. That loophole treats all wood energy as clean energy, as though it releases no climate pollution.
That artifice is rooted in the fact that trees can regrow, meaning wood energy is considered renewable. Treating wood energy as zero-carbon is an accounting sleight-of-hand, however, that’s plainly rejected by more than 20 years of climate science.
27 Mills Across the Southeast Produce Wood Pellets for Europe
And at least 25 more are on the way
“The potential consequences of this bioenergy accounting error are immense,” a European Union science committee warned in a report in 2011, noting that “more realistic expectations for bioenergy potential are necessary.” Exports of U.S. wood pellets have more than doubled since then.
European nations are exploiting the regulatory weak link, sinking hundreds of millions of dollars worth of public subsidies into coal-to-wood conversions at privately owned power plants. That’s helping them comply with European climate laws while preserving expensive coal infrastructure — without reducing climate pollution to required levels.
Without the loophole, the pellet mills — which are expanding rapidly south and west of the sector’s initial hub in the Southeast — would never have been built. While the growth it’s fueling delights many in the forestry industry, it’s threatening natural forests in the U.S.