Have you heard biomass companies and foresters say, “Bioenergy only uses waste wood for its renewable energy”? You’re not alone. It’s a common myth that biomass energy is clean, green, and climate-friendly. But what does “waste wood” mean to bioenergy facilities? What are the impacts of these practices on the environment?
The Biomass Problem
Before 2011, wood pellets were produced to heat buildings. They were also used as bedding for livestock. In other words, companies produced wood pellets for domestic use.
Since the 2010s, however, many countries are trying to address climate change. Some believe that all renewable energies, even biomass, are equal. So countries have been demanding that the US send more and more wood pellets each year. These foreign countries are using wood pellets from Southern forests to generate electricity. They’re hoping to replace fossil fuels with wood pellets. Even if it means that their greenhouse gas emissions increase.
Unlike heating, electricity generation is not nearly as efficient. There’s a lot of waste. Burning wood pellets creates more greenhouse gas emissions than coal. This includes burning fossil fuels with wood pellets, also known as “co-firing.” Does that sound like green, clean, renewable energy to you?
It doesn’t sound like renewable energy to us. It sounds like another excuse to keep logging US forests. Biomass companies don’t care about the increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. They only care about their bottom line – and all the subsidies they get from foreign countries.
Producing wood pellets releases carbon dioxide into the air. We can’t solve the fossil fuel problem with business as usual. We can’t continue dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Issue 1: “Waste” Wood Isn’t What You Think It Is
Many companies imply that they “mostly” use “waste wood” to create their wood pellets. When an average person thinks of waste wood, they think of:
- construction debris
- industrial waste
- municipal waste (or municipal solid waste/MSW – your local county dump)
- tree trimmings from neighborhoods
- sawdust from mills
- agricultural residues from food crops
- organic waste from food crops
- insect or water damaged wood pieces
These are reasonable assumptions. Who wouldn’t support waste-to-energy plants that are just reusing? But this assumption, unfortunately, is wrong.
What does “waste wood” mean to biomass companies?
Biomass energy companies use a very broad definition of “waste” wood. So broad that pretty much anything could be called waste wood. For biomass energy companies, “waste wood” is any tree that is not straight. Or maybe it’s not dense enough to be processed into lumber. To be clear: most trees in a forest are not suitable for lumber.
These giant wood pellet facilities are not using a lot of lumber leftovers. They don’t take wood from the local municipal solid waste site. They’re not even using much of the left over sawdust and wood chips from paper companies. The vast majority of wood that these companies are using is whole trees. Don’t believe me? Just drive by their front gates!
Issue 2: Biomass Energy Companies Are Using Too Much Wood
Even if company definitions of waste wood were honest, there’s another problem. Biomass energy companies are using way too much wood to only rely on waste materials. In 2022, companies in the US exported eight million tons of wood pellets. So that those foreign countries can burn biomass to produce electricity.
Harvesting whole trees for wood pellets impacted 213,600 acres in 2022. This is equivalent to clearcutting 443 football fields per day. That’s a lot of wood pellets to produce. It’s too much for these companies to only use “leftovers” from other operations. That’s why they pay logging companies to bring them whole trees.
Why is relying on waste material a bad idea?
There are a few reasons why “waste to energy” power plants don’t do very well. One is geography: this country is large, and the waste isn’t concentrated. Waste for bioenergy use requires that the waste is close to facilities. This is because the cost of transportation fuels factors into the total cost of energy production.
There are some situations where waste to energy technologies make sense. For example, in traditional forest product mills. They burn literal waste (saw dust, black liquor) on site. These solid and liquid biofuels supplement what they already get from the grid. There are many problems with pollution and waste resources at forest product mills. But, at least they’re using a cheap, available fuel source to produce energy.
A wood pellet production facility can’t easily use waste to energy technologies. They aren’t producing enough waste themselves. And they are often far from hubs of actual wood waste generation. They’re miles away from:
- tree trimming operations
- waste management facilities
- animal waste
- food waste
- other sources of actual wood waste
Without ready access to these materials, biomass companies end up just using whole trees. They refer to those whole trees as “waste wood.”
Issue 3: The Impact of Harvesting Waste Wood for Bioenergy
Harvesting “waste” wood for bioenergy results in the destruction of forests. It also leads to the loss of the potential benefits that whole trees provide. These benefits are known as ecosystem services and include:
- carbon sequestration
- soil stabilization
- habitat for various organisms
Negative Impacts on Wildlife and Habitat
Harvesting “waste” wood for bioenergy can harm wildlife and habitat. Removing waste wood can disrupt natural ecosystems. It can reduce the availability of food and shelter for wildlife. This can lead to the displacement or decline of certain species. Ultimately, these impacts decrease the overall biodiversity of an area.
Loss of Slash Piles in New Forests
Slash piles consist of branches and other debris from tree harvesting. These piles play an important role in maintaining soil health and providing habitat for smaller organisms. Harvesting waste wood for bioenergy can result in the removal of these slash piles. This ultimately lead to loss of ecosystem services and negative impacts on new forest growth.
We Need to Change Our Approach to Biomass Energy Use
Biomass energy is not the renewable energy solution that companies claim it is. Clean energy is wind and solar. Not wood pellets.
Every ton of wood pellets produced releases 2.1 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere. Those are needless greenhouse gas emissions. It takes decades for our planet to recover from emissions like these. We need to be reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Not increasing them. Biomass energy companies are on the wrong side of history.
Will you speak up for the communities near biomass energy facilities like Enviva?