European Utilities Launch “Green Energy” Bomb Aimed at Southern Forests

View from a Southwings flight of the newly opened Enviva pellet mill in Ahoskie, NC.

At a time when scientific evidence is mounting that burning trees for electricity will actually result in increased carbon emissions when compared to coal over the next 30 to 50 years, utilities in Europe are making a mad dash to convert coal burning power plants to wood, all in the name of “renewable energy.” The recent explosion in the use of wood to generate electricity in Europe has resulted in the proliferation of new mills across the US South that are turning whole trees into wood pellets for export to European utility companies.  That’s right.  Forests in the US South are being logged, turned into wood pellets and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe all in the name of “green energy.”

In what felt like a full on Southern forest assault, in September, a multitude of new projects were announced that will help take tree burning to a whole new level.  Between September 18th and September 24th  four new wood pellet manufacturing facilities were announced, one in South Carolina and three in Georgia.  Just two days later on September 26th a port expansion project was announced in Moorhead City, North Carolina, for the stated purpose of supporting the growing wood pellet export market to Europe.  New companies with catchy green-sounding names like “Enviva” and “Enova Energy” are popping up out of nowhere, staking their positions as leading suppliers of “sustainable, “renewable” energy.  Heck, even the word “biomass” sounds kind of green, so it’s no wonder that the German utility company RWE that owns the biggest wood pellet facility in the South has branded it as simply, “Georgia Biomass”.   When you click on their website the first thing you notice is a tree coming out of the logo next to the words “We’re Carbon Neutral.”

Also on September 26th, BusinessWeek reported that England’s biggest utility, Drax announced plans to convert the country’s biggest coal burning power plant into Western Europe’s largest burner of wood, which they describe as a major, $1 billion investment in “renewable” energy.  This power plant will require the harvest of a forest equivalent to “four times the size of Rhode Island” every year! The company is now “investigating building wood pellet plants in North America.”  Unfortunately, England’s recently proposed “sustainable biomass” standards do nothing to protect our forests or ensure real carbon emission reductions.  Even worse, they allow companies to claim sustainability if their wood comes from bogus certification schemes like the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) which has routinely certified as “sustainable” destructive logging practices such as the ditching and draining of wetlands along the Atlantic Coast to make way for pine plantations.

Perhaps the European government, utilities and pellet manufacturers are hoping that with a little “green” smoke, no one will be able to see what’s really going on.  Never mind the mounting body of scientific evidence including the European Environmental Protection Agency’s own Scientific Committee  warning that burning trees could actually accelerate climate change.  Never mind that protecting forests is actually a much better strategy for reducing carbon emissions than burning them.  Never mind that beyond climate change forests are critical protectors of drinking water or that countless species of plants and animals are already in serious danger of extinction because of habitat loss and degradation.  Never mind all that.  Let’s just call it “green”, “renewable” and “carbon neutral” and bulldoze ahead.

Never mind the people who live in the regions whose forests will be stripped and shipped to burn overseas.  Never mind the existing industries (forest products, tourism and outdoor recreation) that employ millions of people that depend on that same limited resource.  Never mind the huge economic disaster that will occur in the wake of catastrophic climate change if we don’t drastically reduce carbon emissions over the next two decades.  Let’s just call it good for the economy and charge on ahead.

The time is now to stand up, make our collective voice heard and demand an immediate halt to the burning of whole trees in the name of “clean, green and renewable” energy.  Europe is heading in the wrong direction and if the mad dash to burn forests for electricity isn’t redirected to truly green and clean sources of energy like solar and wind we might as well forget any chance of slowing climate change.  We can’t afford to wait until the green smoke fades away and our forests are laid to waste to realize what a huge mistake it is to burn trees for electricity.  Biomass is the new coal and it, too, must be stopped.  The time is now to ramp up investment in energy conservation and truly clean energy like solar and wind.

9 Responses to “European Utilities Launch “Green Energy” Bomb Aimed at Southern Forests”

  1. Robert Palgrave

    Terry – here’s some facts. By 2020, the UK, where I live, is intending to burn at least 60 million metric tonnes of biomass per year to produce electricity.

    UK Govt admits most of this will be imported, and it’s clear that N. American wood pellets are the likely main fuel source to begine with. Until Brazil and maybe Africa get in on the act and flood the market with cheap eucalyptus and acacia.

    What are the implications for carbon and climate?


    A great deal of fuel will be used to ship pellets from N. America. With attendant carbon emissions. At 6g CO2e per cargo tonne-km (an optimistic figure) importing 60 million tonnes of pellets generates shipping carbon emissions of:

    6g x 5000 km x 60m tonnes = 180 x 10^9 grams which is 1,800,000 tonnes.

    Total UK shipping emissions are reported to be 12-16 million tonnes per year.

    Bringing 60 million tonnes of wood pellets into the UK every year from N. America for power stations would therefore add considerably, maybe as much as 15%, to total UK shipping emissions.


    Canadian wood suppliers have said there would be a 47% energy loss in processing and transport of fuel to Europe.

    When wood fuel arrives in the UK it is burnt in a 30% efficient power station. So the ‘forest to plug’ efficiency (Canada to London) is:

    0.53 x 0.3 = 16%

    or to put it another way, assuming that bioenergy fuels the processing and transport, just one in six trees cut down actually delivers electricity at the point of final consumption in the UK.


    The worst thing is the carbon debt. Burning 60 million tonnes of oven dry wood will put around 110 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere annually as smokestack emissions, assuming the wood is 50% carbon and all the carbon is converted to CO2. (any Carbon Monoxide that is emitted is soon oxidised in the atmosphere to CO2).

    110 million tonnes of CO2 is a huge increment. In 2010 Govt figures reported that UK total net carbon emissions were 491 million tonnes, and energy supply sector emissions were 191 mt.

    Biomass industry says these emissions are not the same as coal emissions – they are from recent sequestration ( as if that matters) and they will be absorbed by new growth. Biomass proponents concede now that there is such a thing as a carbon debt but propose it can be dealt with by using fast growing trees (aka plantations). Industry is tinkering with GM to develop super-fast Eucalyptus that can thrive in dry and cold areas.

    Govt is allowed to completely ignore the smokestack carbon due to the IPCC / UNFCCC treatment of biogenic emissions.

    How many NEW trees will have be planted to sequester Big Biomass emissions every year – to payback the growing carbon debt from smoke stack emissions, and offset additional and ongoing shipping emissions? New trees are small (obviously) and don’t draw down much carbon until they are established. That will inevitably take time, and delay the date when we start to really reduce overall emissions. The longer we delay cutting actual emissions, the higher the reduction rate needs to be. Adding a carbon debt of even a decade by burning so much wood is extremely dangerous.

    Who is responsible for planting these new trees in Canada, USA and S. America? The answer is it’s being left to the market.Can the market truly deliver such an increase ‘sustainably’ and isn’t the endpoint really more ‘green deserts’ of monoculture plantations rather than ‘natural forests’?

    Maybe the US is growing more timber than it cuts, but what is the point of growing timber to burn and accelerate global warming?

  2. Brent Baeslack

    Wow, Turner’s lack of supporting facts and well expressed reasoning for those qualifying adjectives about this article seems to cast his/her opinion more in the unsupported rant classification than the authors. Burning any resource is a failed ancient activity. Any reasonable person should question the energy inputs into an activity that calls for processing wood on one side of “the pond” (Atlantic Ocean) and then transporting it to the other side sole for the purpose of low efficiency combustion with accompanying emissions. The truth is that you can not burn yourself out of climate change and clean energy never comes with a smokestack.

  3. Danna Smith

    We have been working on issues related to the forest industry in the South for over 15 years. Over this period, we have managed to forge collaborative relationships with major forest products companies, landowners and foresters in the South. You mistake growing more than harvesting for sustainability. Growth to removal rate is merely one of many factors. In addition, you are failing to recognize scientific documentation that burning whole trees releases more carbon than coal.

  4. Terry Turner

    This is a delusional article written by an extremely delusional organization. The lack of facts and misrepresentation contained in this article only lead me to believe the author has no idea how the forest industry works. If they had taken the time to include facts the author should have at least included that the U.S. is growing more timber than it removes which keeps forests and timber as a sustainable form of renewable energy.


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