Utility companies in Europe have been converting their power plants to burn wood, or biomass, instead of coal and other fossil fuels, despite recent research that shows that burning whole trees in power plants increases carbon emissions relative to fossil fuels. In addition, this demand for wood has caused explosive growth in wood pellet exports from North America, endangering valuable forest ecosystems, EcoWatch reports.
Forests act as carbon “sinks,” absorbing and storing carbon. Forests – trees – are one of our best defenses against a warming climate; in the US, forest sinks offset about 13 percent of our net greenhouse gas emissions every year.
Power companies facing pressure to switch to alternative energy sources are going the misguided route of using trees for power under the mistaken notion that trees are “carbon neutral.” While new trees can be planted after others are cut down, the amount of carbon trees take in does not balance the amount of carbon released when trees are burned for fuel.
Like coal, when trees are burned in power plants, the carbon they have accumulated over their lifespan is released into the atmosphere. But because cut wood is nearly half water by weight, energy must be used to boil off the water before useful energy can be gleaned from the wood, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). This makes biomass power plants less efficient; burning wood emits about 40 percent more carbon pollution than burning coal.
Not only is burning wood less efficient, but chopping down vast forests for a supply then eliminates the carbon sink that forests create. In the southern United States, the largest exporter of wood pellets is Enviva. The company harvests trees from southern forests and ships them to Europe for use in power plants. And a recent NRDC report shows that Enviva has “some of the most biologically diverse and environmentally sensitive natural forests in the world in its crosshairs.”
Forested wetlands around Enviva’s Ahoskie, North Carolina wood pellet manufacturing facility are in “serious decline,” according to the report.
“Enviva’s Ahoskie facility sources wood from the Southeastern Mixed Forests and the Middle Atlantic Coastal Forests ecoregions, both of which 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,” it states. “Much of the forested wetlands in the broad ecoregion from which Enviva is sourcing have already been lost to logging.”
The biomass energy industry is destroying precious forest ecosystems and the biodiversity that they support, leaving fragmented remains in its wake. The expansion of this industry throughout the South over the last few years has made the US the largest wood pellet exporter in the world. Forests already stressed from traditional markets for wood and paper are now facing desolation.
Not only does the destruction of forests endanger biodiverse ecosystems, carbon sinks, and wildlife, but it deprives communities of benefits such as flood protection and water quality maintenance.
The sourcing area for Enviva’s Ahoskie mill has been reduced to a fraction of its original size. Many areas that once contained diverse, local species have now been replanted with pines – converted into pine plantations. The scant, remaining natural forests are now highly fragmented and very endangered. The explosive biomass industry risks destroying other ecosystems that can never be replaced or replicated.