The Science of Sustainability

In Wood We Trust

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Wood pellet exports from North America to Europe have doubled in two years to reach 4.7 million tons in 2013, according to the North American Wood Fiber Review. Photo by David Huppert

When it comes to extracting riches from the southern forest there’s a new game in town. Over the past few years a new cottage industry has emerged focused on milling wood pellets and shipping them to Europe to be fired with coal for electricity production.

And it turns out the forests in eastern North Carolina are ripe for the picking.

The woods of North Carolina have long been a rich provider of resources. Hardwood trees are harvested for pallets and furniture and softwoods for pulp and paper. North Carolina’s southern yellow pine is more commonly known to consumers as a “two-by-four” and is a ubiquitous part of the building industry nationwide.

It’s not breaking news that forest resources are renewable. Those of us who live or spend time in the woods can’t help but be in awe of the rapid rejuvenation that occurs naturally after a field is cleared. In an era when renewability is seen as “green,” it’s logical that we turn to our forests. To some, it makes sense that we would harvest and burn biomass to reduce our coal consumption. But does it make sense to pelletize wood in the U.S. only to ship it overseas?

63% of U.S. wood pellet exports come from the South, according to Wood Resources International.

Enterprising foresters in North Carolina are figuring out how to pelletize waste wood, which consists mostly of tree crowns and weed species that are the byproduct of the forest harvest. The pellets are then shipped to markets where they are valued as a renewable source of energy.

The markets for these wood products are increasingly found across the Atlantic. The European Union has decreed that 20 percent of energy in EU countries must come from renewable sources by 2020. Europe’s carbon market (unlike America’s) puts a high value on burning “green” energy sources, and wood pellets from North Carolina are fueling this mandate.

One argument in favor of pelletizing leftover crowns is that it’s better than letting them rot on the forest floor. After all, rotting wood releases stored carbon and contributes to the very greenhouse gases we’re trying to avoid.

The Enviva wood pellet plant in Ahoskie, NC operates 24/7. Most of their products are shipped to Europe where it is valued as a renewable energy source. Photo courtesy Dogwood Alliance & SouthWings

However, many environmentalists oppose the idea of pelletizing or burning biomass of any kind. They see a denuding of the landscape, where we take everything we can get our hands on — from wooded wetlands to trees from pristine swamps to stands of old growth forest. They are also concerned with the loss of biodiversity.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the source for much of these wood pellets — the southeastern mixed forest and the middle Atlantic coastal forest ecoregions — “have been designated by the World Wildlife Fund as Critical/Endangered, because of their high biodiversity and the combination of habitat fragmentation, conversion, and other threats.”

While our forests are able to yield plenty of lumber, furniture, and toilet paper, they have no hope of keeping up with our insatiable desire for energy. Conservationists are concerned that the unchecked use of woody biomass for energy could have a devastating impact on our forests. Organizations like the Dogwood Alliance, based in Asheville, North Carolina, advocate for keeping our forests out of the energy equation altogether.

The Dogwood Alliance considers the shipping of this resource to Europe to be a travesty. For Europe to reduce its emissions and claim a “green-energy credit” by burning pellets from southern forests is seen by many as absurd. Among other things, fossil energy is required to ship the wood pellets to Europe.

This isn’t the first time one culture has stripped another of its resources. Japan’s civilization was built on trees imported from Australia, and the Turkish Empire stripped the Middle East of trees almost entirely. It’s hard to imagine North Carolina as a desert, but human endeavor has done this before all over the world.

According to wood pellet manufacturer Enviva, clear-cutting forests is often the most sustainable approach to forest management. Photo credit SouthWings

These days it’s fashionable for scholars to argue about when one resource or another has “peaked.” Peak oil, peak coal, even peak uranium has made it into today’s energy debate, and the notion of “peak forest” is no exception. When a resource peaks, it doesn’t mean that it ceases to exist: it implies that it will get progressively more expensive as more and more of it consumed.

Anyone who has tried to buy land in the woods of North Carolina knows that the southern forest has peaked. Property in areas populated with hardwoods is way more expensive than pine woodlands. Cleared land is even cheaper. Whether for wildlife habitat or shading homes, hardwood lots are prized — this is something both conservationists and realtors can agree on.

The question that North Carolina and other wooded states need to consider is, how much of our natural capital are we interested in converting into financial capital by shipping our forest resources to Europe? Perhaps it’s time to put a value on the ecological services our woods provide in the U.S. so that our forests are not destroyed in the process of keeping Europe “green.”

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Category: Biodiversity, Blog, Climate, Energy, Environment

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Lyle Estill

About the Author ()

Lyle Estill is the founder of Piedmont Biofuels, a community scale biodiesel project in Pittsboro, North Carolina. He is the author of four books, ranging from biodiesel to local economy to activism, and many articles, newspaper columns, and essays on renewable energy.