How ‘Green’ are Wood Pellets as a Fuel Source?

As for the larger reconciliation bill, which is still under negotiation, the language will also subsidize logging on federal and private lands, as well as subsidize forest biomass energy, wood pellet facilities, and production of cross-laminated wood (a type of prefabricated wood panel used in house construction) under the heading “tree innovation.”

In their letter, the scientists wrote that encouraging more commercial logging and wood electricity “ignored the advice of hundreds of climate and forest scientists who had previously informed Congress that these industries were increasing emissions and exacerbating in the climate crisis. ”

But not all experts agree on that point. Bob Abt has researched the ecology and economics of the southern forests for more than 40 years, and is an emeritus professor of natural resources at North Carolina State University. He says that, under the right economic and environmental conditions, the carbon footprint of wood pellets could be smaller than that of coal. Making this equation work — so that the amount of carbon burned for electricity now can be recovered in future tree growth — has two requirements. First, Abt said, timberland owners need to harvest fast-growing trees, such as the pine or mixed hardwood found in the South. The same process does not work well in the forests of New England or the Pacific Northwest, which take longer to transform.

The second thing is to ensure that landowners who sell timber to pellet companies continue to maintain production on their land as a working forest. Abt said that as the demand for wood into energy increases, the price of wood will also rise. That will serve as an incentive for timber owners to continue to grow their trees to maturity, instead of making the same pasture land for grazing animals or farmland for crop crops, or sell it to home developers. A 2017 study by researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory found that dispersal from housing tracts and shopping malls could also pose a threat to forests. “Urbanization — now the largest cause of forest loss in the Southeastern U.S. — is more likely to expand into forest landscapes when forest owners lack sufficient opportunities to generate income for their trees, ”says the report.

If the soil harvested from the wood pellets can later be converted to other uses, then any carbon released now by burning the pellets for electricity will not be recaptured by the trees in the future. That means the wood pellet industry’s claims to carbon neutrality could depend on the price owners get in North Carolina, Georgia, or Mississippi for their land — something that has been hard to predict for decades. in the future.

Abt says using the forest for energy may not be ideal, but it is a step in the right direction. He said all solutions to the climate crisis should be on the table. “For wood from the south,” he said, “I’m comfortable saying it’s better than coal under most conditions.”

In places like the United Kingdom, where there is no domestic supply of natural gas, there is a huge push to burn wood pellets. In fact, Drax based in the UK converted the island nation’s largest power plant in North Yorkshire a pellet burning plant in 2013. It now produces enough electricity for 4 million homes, with wood pellets imported from in the US. Drax now operates 13 pellet plants in the U.S. and Canada, and has built another three in Arkansas, according to Ali Lewis, head of media and public relations at Drax.

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