Our Forests Aren't Fuel: New Campaign Against Burning American Forests for Electricity
Southern forests are being burned for electricity, and a new campaign announced today aims to put an end to it. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Dogwood Alliance have launched Our Forests Aren’t Fuel to raise awareness of an alarming and rapidly-growing practice of logging forests and burning the trees as fuel to generate electricity.
At the forefront of burning trees logged from Southern forests for electricity are some of Europe’s largest utility companies, including Drax, Electrobel and RWE. Rising demand by these companies has resulted in the rapid expansion of wood pellet exports from the Southern U.S. The American South is now the largest exporter of wood pellets in the world. Recent analyses indicate there are 24 pellet facilities currently operating in the Southeast and 16 additional plants planned for construction in the near-term. Market analysts project that annual exports of wood pellets from the South will more than triple from 1.3 million tons in 2012 to nearly 6 million tons by 2015. All of the South’s largest domestic utilities, including Dominion Resources and Duke Energy, are also beginning to burn wood with plans for expansion in the future.
“With the advancement of clean, renewable energy alternatives, the growing practice of burning trees for electricity is a major step in the wrong direction,” said Debbie Hammel, senior resource specialist of the NRDC. “Our Forests Aren’t Fuel lets the public know about the extent of this ecological devastation and calls on utilities to end the practice. It’s an even dirtier form of energy production than burning fossil fuels, it destroys valuable southern ecosystems and it isn’t necessary.”
“This rapidly expanding trend of burning trees for energy will both accelerate climate change and destroy forests,” said Danna Smith, executive director of Dogwood Alliance. “Southern forests not only protect us from climate change, but protect our drinking water, provide habitat for wildlife and contribute to our quality of life. We need these companies to stop burning trees for electricity and embrace a clean energy future that helps to protect, rather than destroy forests.”
Energy from burning trees—or biomass—has been widely promoted as a form of renewable energy along with technologies like solar, wind and geothermal. Over the past two years, however, mounting scientific evidence has discredited biomass from forests as a clean, renewable fuel. Recent scientific reports document that burning whole trees to produce electricity actually increases greenhouse gas pollution in the near-term compared with fossil fuels and emits higher levels of multiple air pollutants. This fact, combined with the negative impacts to water resources and wildlife associated with industrial logging have discredited whole trees as a clean fuel source. But current European and U.S. renewable energy policies and subsidies encourage the burning of trees as a “renewable” source of energy for power generation, helping to facilitate the rapid increase in demand for trees from Southern forests to burn in power plants.
Consequently, a new industry is spawning in the South. Companies like Maryland-based Enviva, the South’s largest pellet manufacturer, are grinding whole trees into wood pellets to be burned in power stations in Europe while also supplying wood to domestic utilities like Dominion Resources. New evidence that Enviva may be relying at least in part on the harvesting of wetland forests has recently emerged. Georgia Biomass, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the German utility RWE Innogy, is also manufacturing millions of tons of wood pellets annually to be burned in European biomass facilities.
“Our Forests Aren’t Fuel” organizers reveal the scope and scale of the growing biomass industry through a series of case studies on the campaign website that include wood pellet manufacturers, domestic utilities and European utilities. Particular emphasis is placed on the following companies:
- Enviva — One of the largest manufacturers of wood pellets in the U.S. and Europe, with manufacturing facilities and partner facilities in Mississippi, North Carolina and Virginia. The Bethesda, MD-based company has an annual production capacity of more than 590,000 tons. It also operates a deep water terminal at the Port of Chesapeake, which has the capacity to receive and store up to 3 million tons of woody biomass annually. Much of its product is sold and shipped to European utilities, like Drax. Leftover biomass “residues,” like tree tops and limbs, are sold to domestic utilities, like Dominion Resources.
- Drax — Major UK-based utility that recently shifted focus from co-firing biomass in coal power plants to full conversion of its largest plant to biomass. Drax has begun building pellet mills directly through its wholly owned subsidiary Drax Biomass. In December 2012, Drax announced it will build Amite BioEnergy pellet mill in Gloster, MS, and Morehouse BioEnergy in Bastrop, LA, to supply wood pellets for use in its power plants, with production set to begin in 2014.
- Dominion Resources — The Richmond, VA-based utility recently launched several biomass operations that could well rely on whole trees in the near future. Its 83 megawatt plant in Pittsylvania, VA, is one of the largest biomass power stations on the East Coast. Dominion is also converting three existing peak power coal-fired power stations into full-time biomass-burning facilities. The utility currently sources much of its biomass material as “residues” from wood pellet manufacturers like Enviva that export the bulk of its product to European markets. Should the supply of these residuals become limited, Dominion’s operations could increasingly rely on burning whole trees.
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By Katherine Kornei
Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:email@example.com" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
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