The Injustice of Bioenergy Production

Guest post written by Raksha Doddabele, a Dogwood Alliance intern.

As global surface temperatures continue to rise, it’s becoming increasingly urgent that we phase out the use of fossil fuels for energy generation. To do so, we need to find a suitable renewable energy replacement. Wood pellet manufacturers claim that the replacement should be bioenergy, but this is a misinformed and even dangerous assertion.

What is Bioenergy?

Bioenergy is the generation of electricity and gas from organic matter. The most common form of bioenergy is the burning of wood pellets. Bioenergy is often praised by companies as a renewable alternative to fossil fuels, yet bioenergy does not even fix the problems of fossil fuel combustion, which produces the carbon emissions that are warming our planet. We need renewable energy sources that do not generate significant carbon emissions, but the combustion of wood pellets releases 50% more carbon emissions than coal. Rather than being a carbon-neutral solution to our energy needs, the logging of forests for wood pellet production and their subsequent combustion release substantial amounts of carbon emissions. In contrast, other renewable energy sources like solar power and wind power are nearly emissions-free.

Environmental Injustices in US Bioenergy

On top of not addressing the problems of the use of fossil fuel for energy, bioenergy production disproportionately affects environmental justice communities. Biomass processing plants are built primarily in low income BIPOC communities. According to a peer-reviewed study published by our own Dr. Sam Davis as well as Stefan Koester, all of the biomass wood pellet mills in North Carolina and South Carolina are in environmental justice communities. This is significant because the production and combustion of wood pellets produce pollution, including carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, sulfur oxides, and larger particulate matter. Additionally, wood pellet plants can degrade the local water quality. One study found that African Americans who live near a biomass power plant are more likely to be exposed to dangerous pollutants, such as smog, asbestos, and sulfur dioxide. Another study found that wood products industries concentrated in one area can increase unemployment and poverty because of the lack of other areas for employment. 

Map showing the location of existing wood pellet mills and Environmental Justice (EJ) designated communities in the Southern United States. All mills in North and South Carolina have been located in EJ communities, and the research found there is a greater than 50% likelihood that future wood pellet mills would be as well.

This reality of bioenergy perpetuates the same problems associated with fossil fuels. Coal power plants are also disproportionately located in low income BIPOC communities, where they cause excess fatalities due to the emitted air pollution. Climate change is already hurting low income BIPOC communities the most. If we allow our bioenergy “solution” to carry on the same environmental racism associated with fossil fuel plants, we are failing the communities that have long suffered the effects of air pollution and climate change.

If we want to end the injustice of environmental racism, bioenergy cannot be the answer to our sustainable energy needs. We should focus on the carbon-storing capabilities of organic matter like natural forests instead of converting them to wood pellets for energy. Other renewable energy sources that serve their local communities hold promise for a greener future without carbon emissions. Above all, we must ensure that the energy sources of the future meet our needs without harming surrounding human communities, so that we leave environmental injustice in the past.

Want to learn more? Check out the Climate Justice Alliance’s resource here on just transitions.

Want to take action? Take the Stand4Forests pledge!

Raksha Doddabele

Growing up in eastern Tennessee with the backdrop of the Smoky Mountains, Raksha has always had a strong connection with the outdoors. She is a current undergraduate at Duke University, where she is pursuing a B.S. in Biology and minor in Computer Science, which she hopes to put to good use working in wildlife conservation. Some of her favorite activities include hiking, Scuba diving, and adventuring.

One Response to “The Injustice of Bioenergy Production”

  1. Here in the UK our power station Drax is burning your forests, and being subsidised by our government to do so on the grounds that it’s “carbon neutral”. I despair – it should be obvious that bio energy can only be carbon neutral if the biomass comes from agriculture, not from clear cutting forests.
    Even if we switch to biofuels from agriculture, it is not feasible that this can ever displace a significant proportion of our energy usage. This is fairly easy to demonstrate using a bit of arithmetic and the fact that Earth can accommodate at most 1.2 trillion extra trees. The only real solution to climate change is to cut our energy usage, and use renewables for that part we cannot eliminate.


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