Misdirected renewable energy policies both here in the US and in Europe treat biomass, including the burning of trees, as renewable energy just like solar and wind. With billions of dollars of government subsidies available, over the past several years, major utility companies have been converting coal burning power plants to wood, even though there is a mounting body of scientific evidence that burning trees for electricity releases more carbon into the atmosphere than burning coal. In a rush to find much-needed alternatives to fossil fuels, this inconvenient truth, along with evidence that it’s destroying forests, has been largely ignored.
The Economist recently hit the nail on the head in depicting the practice of burning trees for electricity with an illustration of a caveman lighting a fire with sticks in hand. With the emerging technologies of solar and wind power, burning trees as fuel for electricity is indeed quite primitive and clumsy by comparison. The use of forests as a primary fuel source is taking us backward, not forward, on the path to clean energy.
Europe is currently at the forefront of this rush to burn, which has led to an explosion of new facilities here in the South that are chopping down our forests, turning them into wood pellets and exporting them across the Atlantic. Currently, the Southern US is the world’s largest exporter of wood pellets. Wood pellet exports to Europe from the South doubled from 1.5 million tons to over 3 million tons over the past year and are projected to double again to 6 million tons by 2015.
At the head of the pack in Europe is Drax, who is investing billions of dollars to convert dirty old coal plants to wood burning. Much of the wood comes in the form of pellets from the Southern US. Drax is not alone, with many of Europe’s largest utilities including Electrabel, GDF Suez, Dong, and Forth burning wood pellets imported from the US South to generate electricity as well.
Domestic utilities here in the South are not far behind the Europeans. All of the top utilities in the South already have some capacity to burn wood for electricity with plans for further expansion in the future. Currently, Dominion Power in Virginia leads the pack. Other companies are not far behind like Southern Company, Duke Power, TVA, and Florida Power & Lights, who all have plans of their own.
The largest company pelletizing forests in the South is Maryland-based Enviva. Though they claim that the trees they use come from “sustainable forestry”, Enviva ‘s sourcing of wood from clearcut cypress tupelo wetland forests along the North Carolina Virginia coast was revealed today by not only the Wall Street Journal but also the BBC.
What an embarrassment this must be to Virginia’s Dominion Power and Drax in the UK, both of whom rely on Enviva for wood to burn. Drax purchases wood pellets exported to Europe by Enviva and Dominion Power buys the leftover tops and limbs from Enviva’s operations. Both Drax and Dominion claim that they hold their wood suppliers to high standards of forestry. The fact that Enviva has been caught sourcing from clearcut wetlands is yet another inconvenient truth I am sure these companies don’t want to hear. I suspect the other huge wood pellet companies, including Georgia Biomass, Green Circle, and more have some inconvenient truths of their own that will come out in due time.
Before that happens, however, these companies can make the right choice. The leaders in this fiasco, Dominion Power, Drax and Enviva, can set a better example by choosing not to burn trees for electricity and announcing their leadership in developing non-destructive, clean energy sources that will actually reduce carbon emissions. As leading developers of forests as a fuel source, these companies now have an opportunity to take swift and decisive action before additional investments are made and the problem reaches a scale that is irreversible for our forests and climate.
Now, more than ever, we should fast-track investment in clean energy such as solar and wind while simultaneously accelerating efforts to protect forests. Our forests are vital for clean air, clean drinking water, flood control, wildlife habitat, and protect us from climate change. They should not be burnt for electricity – our forests aren’t fuel.