The United States is a leading producer of wood pellets, exporting over 8 million tons in 2021. That’s up from just one million tons in 2011. Most of these exports still go to Europe, but there’s a growing demand for wood pellets in Asia. So what are wood pellets, and why are they becoming such an in-demand product?
The answer lies in the international demand for wood pellets to meet renewable energy goals. These countries and companies believe that only dead trees and “post-consumer wood” is used to make wood pellets. However, wood pellets produced in the US come predominantly from whole trees, not wood residues or unmerchantable wood.
Learn more about the wood pellet industry’s growth, the export market’s impacts, and the future for bioenergy below.
What are wood pellets?
Wood pellets are made from compressed sawdust or other wood waste. When burned in power plants, they produce ash and emit more carbon dioxide than coal. Because wood pellets come from trees, wood pellets are sometimes touted as a “green” energy source. However, there are multiple environmental problems with wood pellets.
Production and use of wood pellets
First, producing wood pellets requires large amounts of energy: logging, transport, processing, and shipping. These processing steps add 10-20% more carbon emissions to the final carbon impact of these products.
Second, wood pellets are less efficient than other fuels in the electricity sector. Wood pellets used for heating are moderately efficient, but wood pellets take more energy to combust than coal. And they produce less energy for the same period. Because of this and mechanical limitations, wood pellets are often burned in a mixture with coal.
Carbon stocks in the United States
Another issue is that wood pellets speed up the release of carbon into the atmosphere. This is especially true when you compare wood pellets to other wood products. The carbon stored in furniture may stay in the biosphere for decades or centuries. However, the carbon stored in wood pellets is released within a few years. Studies like ours have shown that the carbon impact from logging is gigantic.
In addition, clearcutting forests to get wood for pellets can result in habitat loss and other environmental damage. One study found that more logging residues get removed during a bioenergy harvest. Those are things like branches, leaves, and smaller trunks. This can lead to more significant impacts on the soil and longer forest recovery. As a result, the true environmental impact of wood pellet production is highly contested.
Social impacts of wood pellet production
Wood pellet mills are not good neighbors. Communities with wood pellet mills complain about the 24/7 noise, the constant truck traffic, and the thick dust that blankets everything. The dust is so bad that community members have to wash their cars multiple times a week. Wood pellet mills promise jobs to communities, but the truth is that jobs are often temporary or contract with few benefits and securities.
Where wood pellet mills get placed is another issue. A study found that mills were twice as likely to be placed in under-resourced communities of color. All the wood pellet mills in North and South Carolina were placed in these “Environmental Justice” communities.
Where is the demand for wood pellets coming from?
European countries are increasingly demanding wood pellets because of international climate treaties. The climate treaties argue that trees can be regrown quickly, unlike fossil fuels. Therefore, wood pellets are “carbon neutral” in most countries’ carbon ledgers.
However, substantial greenhouse gases are emitted when wood pellets are burned. Because wood pellets burn hotter than coal, one ton of wood pellets will produce more greenhouse gases than one ton of coal. While technically a renewable energy source, other sources like wind and solar are far more efficient and low-carbon than wood pellets.
Where is the global bioenergy supply?
While wood pellets are produced in multiple countries, the United States is a substantial producer of solid biomass. There are a few reasons for this:
- The US South is already “the wood basket of the world” – providing between 10-20% of the world’s paper, pulp, and other wood products.
- The US has already destroyed 95% of its old-growth forests. In the forestry sector, any younger forests are fair game for harvest.
- Subsidies offset the cost of building wood pellet mills, both from the US government and the countries that want to purchase.
- The US South has many forests, and over 90% of the forest resources (raw materials) are privately owned. Harvesting woody biomass, fuel wood, and wood chips is easy. There’s no red tape.
While many countries produce some wood pellets, the US dominates the wood pellet export market. In 2020, the US was responsible for 25% of total global wood pellet exports. The US exported more biomass resources than the next two countries (Vietnam and Canada) combined.
How many wood pellet mills are there in the US South?
The number of mills built for wood pellet exports grows every year. Unfortunately, many foreign countries believe that wood energy is the best way forward. As a result, there’s a very high wood fiber demand from external sources.
As of April 2022, there were 24 operating mills for wood pellet exports in the US South. There are an additional fifteen mills either proposed or under construction.
How many tons of wood pellets are exported from the US each year?
In a crushing blow to forest resources, more and more wood pellets are exported every year from the US South. For a while, analysts even predicted near-exponential growth of the biomass industry. Luckily, those estimates have fallen flat. But the impact of the bioenergy market grows every year.
Where are US wood pellets going?
Wood pellets from the US South go mostly to renewable electricity or renewable heating schemes – not other places. As a result, wood pellets from the US have gone to 75 countries since 2012. However, over 75% of US wood pellets have gone to the UK.
Only four countries have received more than a million tons of wood pellets from the United States from 2012-2020:
- The United Kingdom: 37 million tons of wood pellets
- Belgium: 5.2 million tons of wood pellets
- Denmark: 2.1 million tons of wood pellets
- Netherlands: 2.1 million tons of wood pellets
However, the percentage of wood pellets going to each country will continue to change as bioenergy companies like Enviva secure long-term contracts with governments and their power plants.