How Much Wood Goes to Bioenergy?

Across the US South, forests are being used to produce wood pellets. These pellets are burned for electricity generation in the European Union and beyond. This industry was almost nonexistent before 2010. So how much wood is now going to producing wood pellets? Let’s find out together.

What’s the deal with biomass energy?

Biomass energy is an older technology that uses wood pellets from whole trees to produce electricity. It’s known by many different names: biomass energy, wood pellets, bioenergy, and more.

Biomass energy is a “renewable energy” source, but it does release a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, which contributes to global warming.

Biomass energy has become popular among governments in Europe and Asia. It’s because they’re struggling to reach renewable energy goals. They can make a few tweaks to existing coal plants and be ready to burn wood pellets.

In theory, energy from forest biomass could replace energy from fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. But biomass fuel is terrible for the environment, despite what these companies say.

a pile of wood pellets

Carbon neutral? Think again.

International treaties declared that this process to generate electricity is carbon neutral. On paper (and in politics), the carbon stored in wood pellets doesn’t count. The amount of carbon that bioenergy produces is higher than other renewable energy sources like wind and solar. But for some reason, it’s still acceptable as an energy source to other countries.

Scientific evidence shows that burning wood pellets emits a lot of carbon. Burning biomass releases up to 50% more carbon “at the smokestack” than if you burned fossil fuels. In other words, we shouldn’t be using pellets to reduce the carbon emissions of power plants.

Plus, the energy efficiency of pellets compared to fossil fuels is really, really bad. Most of the time, pellets burn alongside fossil fuels to produce electricity. This is because existing equipment can’t have more than 5-10% of the fuel source as bioenergy.

Even so, some countries continue to believe that pellets are a sustainable option. International demand is driving the expansion of wood pellet production across the US.

Don’t the forests grow back?

International treaties declared bioenergy to be carbon neutral because trees grow back. However, this natural regeneration of forests can take decades or even centuries. Plus, we lose out on the carbon sequestration that the forest could’ve provided during that time. Consistently logged forests are less healthy than intact, mature natural forests.

Scientific evidence shows that it can take decades for biomass energy to reach carbon neutrality. Countries are better off fighting climate change with wind and solar as alternative energy sources. Not biomass.

How many forest resources is biomass energy taking from the South?

Now that we understand the basics about bioenergy, we can understand how much wood is being taken to produce pellets. Luckily, the US Forest Service provides an annual (ish) dataset called the Timber Product Output (TPO) database. This helps us understand where our forest inventory is going. Is it all going to paper production? All going to pellets? Somewhere in between?

The answer depends on the state you’re in. There are four states where bioenergy takes over 10% of the total wood. In order by percentage, they are:

  • Virginia: 17% of all logs are going to bioenergy production
  • North Carolina: 13% of all logs are going to bioenergy production
  • Georgia: 11% of all logs are going to bioenergy production
  • Florida: 11% of all logs are going to bioenergy production

Unsurprisingly, these are the four states with the largest wood energy plants around. South Carolina is using 6% of its total wood to produce wood energy. Both Louisiana and Mississippi are using 4% of their forest biomass to make pellets or chips. Finally, Alabama is using about 3% of their logs for renewable energy production.

What’s remarkable is that before 2010, pellets were only produced for residential heating. There was no meaningful export of pellets to other countries for energy generation. Foreign demand for “renewable energy” is driving the growth in the biomass industry. Those countries simply ignore the fact that bioenergy still produces carbon pollution.

But don’t these companies just use waste wood?

Before 2010, the answer may have been yes. But since foreign demand increased for pellets and wood chips, there’s not enough “waste” wood to address the demand. Logging residue removal may provide a small portion of the wood used for pellets. But mostly, these companies are using whole logs and harvested trees for pellets.

The pelletization process emits greenhouse gas at every step. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases get emitted when:

  • logging trucks travel
  • logging residues or whole trees are harvested
  • the pellets themselves are produced

There are additional emissions for transport across the ocean to foreign countries. Plus, even if they replant the trees immediately, it takes decades for the forest to recover.

a pile of logs in front of pine trees

What can I do?

Now that you know there’s a problem, it’s time to take action! We’re calling on our elected representatives to do something about the bioenergy problem. Biomass results in more greenhouse gases and real impacts on the communities where it’s produced.

You CAN help.

If you live in North Carolina, demand that Governor Cooper rein in the biomass industry right now.

Or ask President Biden to take action and protect our forests before it’s too late.

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