What’s Up with the Biomass Industry and Forest Health?

Biomass, or bioenergy, creates energy by burning living materials like plants and trees. The wood pellet industry uses trees to make wood pellets. It then ships them to Europe and Asia where they’re burned in power plants to create electricity. Wood pellet plants are as dirty and problematic as coal plants. Burning trees (via burning wood pellets) is not a climate solution. Here’s why.

What do forests provide?

Southern forests provide many benefits to humans. They provide us with oxygen to breathe, clean water, and homes for animals. Forests also provide us with food, medicine, and materials for clothing and shelter. Forests are a vital part of our planet and are necessary for our survival.

Forests provide clean water

There are so many examples of how forests influence our access to clean water that it’s hard to choose a few. But here are the highlights:

  • In areas with clearcuts, changes in hydrology mean that flooding spreads more quickly and is more dangerous.
  • Forests can decrease flooding after a hurricane or storm.
  • Clearcutting can cause leaching of nitrogen pollutants into water runoff.
  • Salvage logging (logging after a fire) has a negative effect on regulating ecosystem services like water quality and soil quality.

Forests provide carbon storage

Forests play a critical role in the global carbon cycle by storing carbon in their trees and soils. Deforestation, however, can release stored carbon back into the atmosphere, which contributes to climate change.

Forests help keep regional temperatures steady and safe

Forests play an important role in keeping regional temperatures steady and safe. By absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen, forests help keep the Earth’s atmosphere in balance. They also provide shade and cooler temperatures in the summer. They also buffer against extreme weather conditions.

Forests provide homes for wildlife

Forests provide homes for wildlife in many ways. One way is that forests provide shelter and food for animals. Forests also shield animals from predators, the impacts from humans (like development and roads), and even from rapidly changing temperatures. When we lose forests, animals lose their refuge.

What is the scale of forest degradation in the Southeastern United States?

Forest degradation is the process of harming or diminishing the quality of a forest. This can be caused by a variety of factors, such as logging, climate change, and more. Forest degradation can impact benefits that forests provide in a number of ways. In the US, forest degradation is one of the most common impacts on forests.

The number one cause of carbon emissions from US forests is logging

Based on the news, you would think that forest carbon loss was mostly coming from  tearing down forests for homes or watching them burn in wildfires. But, the number one cause of carbon emissions from US forests is logging. Logging destroys forest carbon stocks and many other benefits.

  • 85% of carbon emissions from forests were attributed to logging. This is five times more than carbon lost through fires, insects, disease, drought, or development combined.
  • Over half of forest tree cover loss was due to logging in North America. The number creeps higher when you focus in on the US South.
  • Scientists agree that our forests need to absorb more carbon and quickly if we’re to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Burning trees for energy is destroying forests

wood pellets emerge from a machine

The US South exports more wood pellets than anywhere else in the world. These wood pellets are usually burned alongside coal in the name of “renewable” energy.

  • For each ton of wood pellets produced, 24,000 acres of forest are destroyed. Read the fact sheet here.
  • Over a million acres in the US have already been cut for wood pellets.

Planting trees does not help forest regrowth

While landowners may replant destroyed trees, they are not required to do so by law. Planted trees (tree farms) take a long time to grow and do not offer the same benefits as natural forests.

How does the biomass energy industry impact the environment?

There are now more frequent natural disasters, including hurricanes, floods, heat waves, and wildfires. Scientists have linked these events to increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The wood pellet industry is bad for the environment, just like coal or natural gas. The biomass energy industry is destroying forests that help protect us from natural disasters.

  • The IPCC says that if bioenergy competes for land, it would negatively impact all other land use – like for food.
  • Logging for wood pellets makes forest soils lose carbon. This means that bioenergy harvest can worsen climate change.
  • Logging can lead to losses in amphibians, small mammals, and other forest-dependent species.

The biomass energy industry is not “good” renewable energy

Renewable energy industries like wind and solar produce fewer carbon emissions per unit of electricity generation. This is because the carbon emissions associated with wind and solar are mostly during the construction phase. Unlike wind and solar, burning biomass requires a consistent supply of trees. Over time, the carbon debt from biomass energy continues to increase.

  • Both solar and wind-powered energy have a consistently lower “global warming potential” than energy produced from wood pellets.
  • While the cost of solar technology decreases every year, the cost of burning wood pellets will always depend on transportation and manufacturing costs.

The biomass energy production process uses fossil fuels

Harvesting and transporting forest biomass for wood pellets requires fossil fuels. Fossil fuels via diesel and gasoline fuels are used to operate forestry equipment and transport vehicles. Other energy sources, like natural gas, may be used to power machinery at the biomass energy production plants. The amount of energy used to produce wood pellets varies, but can range from 5-20% of the total carbon emissions generated by the entire lifecycle.

Many biomass plants will proudly state that their wood pellets are carbon neutral. However, this is based on several key assumptions about the manufacturing process. First, many lifecycle analyses assume that biomass plants only use tops and limbs from trees being harvested for other purposes. While this may have been true many years ago, since then, the demand for wood pellets has increased exponentially. Biomass plants are using whole trees and trunks to make wood pellets – not just tops and limbs.

Second, lifecycle analyses assume that trees somewhere in the same region will grow enough to offset the carbon lost through clearcutting. But it’s not fair to expect someone else’s trees to offset the carbon lost through your forest clearing. Instead, lifecycle analyses should be focusing on the areas where the clearcutting occurred. Through that lens, it takes 40-100+ years for the carbon to be reabsorbed by new trees. Unfortunately, we don’t have 40-100+ years to combat climate change.

The biomass industry unfairly targets environmental justice communities

As the renewable energy boom continues to grow across the world, we must examine the true implications of energy projects like these. Environmental racism is when specific communities, like BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, or People of Color) neighborhoods, are subjected to more environmental harms than non-BIPOC communities. Learn more about this environmental racism.

In the US South, wood pellet facilities that use forest biomass are often placed in low-income communities of color. These communities are more likely to experience environmental injustice. They often already have other sources of pollution in or near their communities like:

  • Natural gas pipelines or compressor facilities
  • Industrial train stations for transporting goods, not people
  • CAFOs – concentrated animal feeding operations
  • Other large manufacturing facilities
  • Coal ash or coal power plants

These other polluters contribute to hazardous air pollutants and even greenhouse gas emissions. Given this pattern of injustice, why does the biomass industry continue to operate in these communities?

The biomass industry helps companies burn more coal

Many wood pellets are “co-fired” alongside coal in traditional power plants. Power plants can burn wood pellets alongside coal to get renewable energy credits. In other words, they can get credit for “green” energy while still burning coal.

When power plants are allowed to “offset” greenhouse gas emissions by cofiring dirty coal with wood pellets, they’re putting more and more carbon into the atmosphere. This is the opposite of the “carbon neutral” companies that they claim to be.

Final thoughts

If you’re living near a wood pellet plant, you deserve to know your risks.

Learn more about the air pollution that biomass causes.

Share this fact sheet about the relationship between biomass and forests with your friends.

Take action now to prevent further damage to your lungs and your community!

One Response to “What’s Up with the Biomass Industry and Forest Health?”

  1. Hi Sam. Good article, and thanks for the work you do. I believe there has been somewhat of a mathematical error though. The statistic of needing 24000 acres for each ton of wood pellets is absurd, just on the face of it. I can buy a ton of wood pellets for less than $100. No company could turn a profit if it needed to log 24000 acres just to get one ton. Looked at another way, from the “fact sheet” linked to in the article, hundreds of thousands of tons of wood pellets are said to be exported from Wilmington, NC every year. The area of the entire state of NC is about 35 million acres. If we divide this by 24000 acres, we get a capacity of 1458 tons of wood pellets that could be produced, if the entire state was forest, and the entire forest was converted to wood pellets every year. I’m a bit of a stickler for these things, as all too often, those with a vested interest will jump on unintentional errors like this to discredit entire analyses. Thanks, and have a great day! Dean


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