Progress Energy and Florida Power Embrace EcoGen’s Plans to Generate Electricity from Non-native Eucalyptus Plantations in the Southern US
Burning wood to generate electricity as a replacement to fossil fuels is being widely promoted as the solution to climate change in spite of mounting scientific evidence that burning trees will actually accelerate carbon emissions and add to already intense pressure on forests over the next several decades. The last thing we need in the midst of record droughts, storm surges and unseasonal temperature swings is more carbon going into the air and more forest destruction, right?
Yet, despite the warnings, a mad dash to burn forests in the Southern US for electricity is underway. Not only has there been an almost overnight proliferation of new manufacturing facilities turning Southern forests into wood pellets for export to burn in European power stations, but now domestic utilities are joining the frenzy. Even worse, Progress Energy and Florida Power and Light are supporting the planting of non-native, industrial-scale eucalyptus tree plantation energy crops, which could wreak major havoc on native ecosystems and water supplies already under stress.
These two utilities are moving ahead without any mechanisms in place to verify that generating electricity from burning trees actually will reduce carbon emissions or that they will be sourcing wood responsibly. Quite to the contrary, they are ignoring evidence that electricity generated from burning trees will actually accelerate carbon emissions for decades while having a negative impact forests.
A new company called EcoGen recently emerged out of nowhere onto the rapidly expanding biomass power generation scene in the Southern US. According to the company’s website:
“U.S. EcoGen, LLC plans to develop, finance, construct, own, and operate a portfolio of 63 MW biomass-fueled Generating Facilities and 200,000 MT/Yr Pellet Facilities throughout the Southeastern region of the United States. USEG plans to have at least 20 plants in its portfolio by 2025, representing more than 1,000 MWs of electrical power generation and 4 Million MT/Yr of pellet production. USEG currently has four (4) 63 MW/200,000 MT/Yr projects (“Florida Projects”) under advanced stage development.”
But, what separates EcoGen from the rest of the pack is its very public intent to supply the new energy market by planting industrial eucalyptus plantations. Eucalyptus trees are not native to the Southern US, and their planting on an industrial scale poses significant threats to the South’s native forests and water resources. Eucalyptus trees grow faster than any of the native Southern tree species and could quickly become invasive, taking over natural ecosystems. In fact, the Charlotte News & Observer describes Eucalyptus trees as “the kudzu of the 2010’s.” And if that wasn’t bad enough, major efforts are underway to develop genetically-engineered eucalyptus to be frost-tolerant, so it can grow in other, cooler regions of the South.
In addition, eucalyptus trees rapidly soak up water as they grow. In many places around the world where industrial eucalyptus plantations have been established, water supplies have been significantly impacted. Burning trees for electricity is a terrible idea. Burning trees grown from establishing non-native Eucalyptus plantations is an even worse idea.
Yet, EcoGen already has a signed long-term purchase agreement with Progress Energy to buy power generated from burning trees for electricity at a yet-to-be constructed power plant in Fort Meade, Florida. Florida Power and Light is now seeking approval from Florida state regulators to approve a proposal that would result in their purchase of electricity from EcoGen’s three proposed new wood burning biomass power plants in Clay, Martin and Okeechobee counties.
So what’s the good news? None of EcoGen’s power stations have been built yet. There is still time for Progress Energy and Florida Power and Light to change course and align their strategies with the most recent climate and forest science. Utility companies that rely on biomass as a primary “renewable energy” strategy are going to find themselves in the midst of increasing public conflict. And those that are spurring the industrial-scale planting of eucalyptus plantations are going to be in the front and center of that conflict.
In addition, utilities that embrace tree burning are going to get caught up in a rapidly evolving regulatory environment. Governments are considering new policies that take into account the growing scientific evidence that burning trees for electricity might actually increase carbon emissions. The Scientific Advisory Board of the EPA studying the issue has warned that burning trees is not “carbon neutral”, and Massachusetts adopted new regulations last year requiring full carbon accounting for biomass that significantly limits the use of whole trees. Even European governments are reassessing their biomass carbon policies. Utilities would be much smarter to avoid whole tree biomass and focus on strategies that are actually likely to result in real carbon emission reductions like energy conservation and efficiency, solar, wind and geothermal.