In this first part of the year, we’re exploring our new survey’s results on logging, bioenergy, climate impacts, and nature. Here, we’re taking a closer look at bioenergy in the US South. We asked our respondents five questions about wood pellets and bioenergy. They responded in surprising ways. Find out what it means for forests – and for environmental campaigns – everywhere.
The technical details
In December of 2022, YouGov surveyed 1,000 people across Georgia and North Carolina. NC and GA are the top two wood pellet producing states in the US. These states are also major producers of other wood products. This survey followed up on previous surveys YouGov has done for Dogwood Alliance. We asked 17 questions about attitudes towards and knowledge of environmental practices, including:
- Bioenergy Production
- Climate Change Impacts
- Forests & Recreation
Participants were also asked to provide basic demographic information. This included age, sex, race, income, education, and social media participation. Survey responses were voluntary and relay important insights about these topics.
Alright, let’s get into it! Survey says…
Just 43% of respondents had heard of wood pellets used to produce electricity.
We had never asked this question before, but what we found was enlightening. Gen Z and Millennials (ages 18-34) were the most likely to be educated about wood pellet use in electricity production. 57% of ages 18-34 were familiar. 33% of those aged 55+ were familiar. That’s a statistically significant difference.
An industry that relies on exporting forest destruction should be on everyone’s radar. Especially when everyone feels the impacts of dirty air, damaged roads, noise pollution, and fallen trees.
While awareness isn’t as high as we would’ve liked, this survey question gave us with critical insight. Participants who understood the wood-pellets-for-energy scheme were also more likely to understand other environmental issues. In other words: bioenergy is a keystone issue for environmental campaigns.
What is bioenergy?
Wood pellets, or pellets made from “woody biomass”, are sometimes used to produce electricity. This method of electricity production from biological material is known as “bioenergy.” All three of these terms – bioenergy, biomass, and wood pellets – are used interchangeably to talk about this issue.
Before 2008, wood pellets were almost never used for electricity. Instead, they were used for things like:
- Heating via residential wood pellet stoves or in small facilities like universities
- As a form of stall bedding for horses and other livestock
- A “natural”, non-clumping cat litter
As a result, wood pellet production in the US occurred at smaller facilities. It truly was a waste-based business, operating on waste material from paper factories or forest operations.
In the mid 2000s, that changed. Billions of dollars started flowing to wood pellets in the name of renewable energy. These foreign investments have caused an exponential increase in the wood pellet industry. In 2022, the wood pellet industry produced 8.9 million tons of wood pellets in the US. These wood pellets were exported to countries in Europe and Asia.
What’s the problem with bioenergy?
The problem with bioenergy is that it’s bad for the climate. Burning wood pellets actually produces one and a half times more carbon dioxide than burning an equivalent amount of coal. That’s right – renewable energy subsidies are driving power plants to put even more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Bioenergy is just not the “green” energy it claims to be. You can read more about the issues with bioenergy here.
Forest defenders understand the issues with bioenergy
Through this survey, we’ve found something surprising. People who’ve heard of bioenergy are more likely to understand the many other environmental issues that we’re facing.
In this next section, we’ll explore the questions that we asked and how answers changed if people were familiar with wood pellets.
“Burning wood pellets is not climate-friendly”
We asked survey respondents if they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “Burning wood pellets is not climate-friendly because it creates greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide.”
Across the entire survey, half of respondents said that they agreed that wood pellets were not climate friendly. The public is beginning to understand the climate implications of wood pellets.
But for people who were already familiar with wood pellets? 77% of those people agreed that wood pellets were not climate friendly. That’s right – a 22% jump in agreement once people were familiar with the issue.
“Coal burners shouldn’t get subsidies.”
We asked survey respondents if they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “Energy companies that use coal should not receive renewable energy subsidies.”
Across the entire survey, over half (52%) agreed with this statement. But when we filtered the data by those familiar with bioenergy, agreement again rose sharply.
Nearly 70% of people who knew about the wood pellet scam thought that companies shouldn’t receive subsidies at all when they kept burning fossil fuels. People who know about wood pellets can see through greenwashing easily.
Confidence in truly renewable energy (NOT bioenergy)
We asked survey respondents if they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “Renewable energy supplies like wind and solar power should be able to meet our energy needs in the next ten years.”
Among the full survey respondents, 59% of people agreed with that statement. People are confident that true renewables like wind and solar are going to meet our energy needs.
People who were familiar with bioenergy were also more likely to agree with this statement – 71%, in fact. Less dramatic than the other questions, but still a big jump in confidence.
Polluters: stay out of vulnerable communities!
People weren’t too sure about this question. We asked survey respondents if they agreed or disagreed with the following statement. “Companies shouldn’t make wood pellets in communities that are already polluted by other industries.”
Just 48% of the full survey responses agreed. But among people who understand what’s at stake with bioenergy? A full 66% of people agreed.
Why do perceptions about bioenergy and pollution matter?
I’m the author of the survey. And I have to admit: I should have phrased that question better. What I should have said was this:
Some communities already have a lot of polluters. From coal burners and train depots to natural gas and paper mills, some communities are suffering. Should these communities also have to suffer from wood pellet pollution?
The answer, for a lot of people, is no. If you’ve already got a smelly manufacturing plant up the street, you probably don’t want another one. But that’s exactly what’s happening.
Don’t believe me? Check out this video. Five other polluters in this tiny town, and they want to make wood pellets here, too. How are people supposed to enjoy where they live?
People across the country are resisting environmental injustices like these. And you can, too. This survey shows you’re not alone. Many people across North Carolina, Georgia, and the country care deeply about the issues at hand.