EENR First-place Essay: ‘Wood Pellets as Biofuel: Is it Sustainable?’

As we wrote last month, the North Carolina Bar Association’s Environment, Energy & Natural Resources Section is pleased to announce the winners of its 2018 Sustainability Essay Contest.  A description of the contest and this year’s topic can be found here.  Please join us in congratulating this year’s winners.

Published below is Emily Liu’s first-place essay on “Wood Pellets as Biofuel: Is it Sustainable?” ($1,000 prize + publication).

Previously published are Catherine Trusky’s “Biomass: Helpful or Harmful?” (Second Place, $500 prize) and Ann Winstead’s “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle: Waste” (Third place, $250 prize)

A special thanks to Professor Maria Savasta-Kennedy, Ted Feitshans, and Blakely Hildebrand for their time and effort coordinating this contest!

Wood Pellets as Biofuel: Is it Sustainable?

By Emily Liu
East Chapel Hill High School, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
When I first learned about word pellets being manufactured as renewable energy resource in North
Carolina was last fall, I was on my way to swimming practice, and heard the report “Controversy
Simmers over NC Wood Pellet Plant” by James Morrison on WUNC 91.5. As an Alliance for
Climate Education (ACE) fellow and a participant of University of North Carolina (UNC) Climate
Leadership and Energy Awareness Program (Climate LEAP), this report inspired my curiosity.

Since then, I have been tracking the news and reading the literature in my spare time. I learned that
unlike coal and fossil fuel, which takes hundreds of millions of years to form, wood pellets can be
replanted and regenerated within a few decades. They are qualified as a “renewable energy
resource”, according to North Carolina’s Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Portfolio
Standard. On April 23, 2018, U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt issued a statement, making it
clear that biomass from managed forests will be treated as carbon neutral.

The Booming Wood Pellet Industry

The booming of wood pellet industry in the U.S. is due to increasing demand from the European
Union (EU) for renewable energy sources. In 2009, The EU released its 20-20-20 policy for
reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It set the goals of a 20% reduction in carbon emissions, 20%
use of renewables for electricity production, and a 20% increase in efficiency compared to 1990
levels, all to be achieved by the year 2020. To meet the renewable standard, enormous growth was
sparked across Europe in biomass utilization, leading to the global boom of wood pellet industry.
U.S. companies built biomass pellet and processing facilities in the southeast (SE) and produced
more than 8.7 million metric tons of wood pellets and exported more than half that to EU in 2015.
The U.S. International Trade Administration expects consumption of wood pellets by the top 10
U.S. export markets to average 21 million metric tons annually in the next two years. Exports from the SE are expected to increase from 3.9 million metric tons in 2014 to 9.6 million metric tons in
2019 and to more than 13.6 million metric tons in 2030. In North Carolina alone, four Enviva
facilities have been built and are currently in operation: one in Southampton with 510,000 metric
tons annual capacity, one in Northampton with 510,000 metric tons annual capacity, one in
Ahoskie with 370,000 metric tons annual capacity, and the last one in Sampson with 500,000
metric tons annual capacity.

This booming wood pellet industry generates new revenues and create new jobs. According to
Transparency Market Research, in a report titled “Wood pellets market – Global industry analysis,
size, share, growth, trends and forecast 2015 – 2023,” the market for wood pellets is projected to
expand at a compound annual growth rate of 14.10% from 2015 to 2023 and the opportunities in
the market is expected to swell from $6.2 billion in 2015 to $20 billion in 2023.

Impact on the Environment

Wood pellets are a carbon neutral fuel, having been recognized as such by the Kyoto Protocol and
by renewable energy policies in the U.S. They have a very small carbon footprint because wood
absorbs as much carbon when it is growing as is released when it is burnt. Several research studies
showed that use of wood pellets for electricity generation could help in reducing the greenhouse
gas (GHG) emissions by at least 50% (Dwivedi and Khanna, 2014). Karner and coworkers (2017)
even calculated that the total reduction of GHG emissions will range from 3 to 5.7 million metric
tons of CO2-equivalent by 2030 in Austria alone.
The impact of wood pellets production in the SE on forest systems, ecosystem services, and
biodiversity has been examined by researchers as well. Dale and others (2017) reviewed current
forest conditions and the status of the wood products industry, and they found that wood pellets in
the SE of the U.S. are only a tiny fraction of total forestry operations and can be produced while
maintaining or improving forest ecosystem services. They also made use of U.S. Department of
Agriculture Forest Service (USFS) Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) annual survey data for
2002–2014 to analyze changes in timberland trends since 2009 in Chesapeake, VA, and Savannah,
GA. What they found was that even though use of wood pellets as biofuel has been more than
doubled, the pellet industry constitutes less than 1% of U.S. forest products by weight. A recent study by Parish et al. (2018) unveiled that biomass for wood pellets comprises only 3% of SE U.S.
timberland removals, so the assertions of negative ecological impacts on SE forests could not be
substantiated from their study. This point was also confirmed by Galik and Abt (2017), who
examined the interaction between policy targets and forest biomass markets. They found that wood
pellets from the SE U.S. could be used to meet sustainability guidelines set by the EU to achieve
its larger renewable energy and GHG emissions goals. To predict the trend in the future, Duden
and coworkers (2017) investigated spatially variable changes in timberland management in the SE
U.S., and projected that, with the high wood pellet demand, more (2000–7500 km2) natural
timberland area will be retained and more (8000–20,000 km2) pine plantation will be established.

Controversies Rampant

The booming wood pellet industry, however, is not without controversy. It has received a lot of
opposition from environmental and social justice activists, especially very recently.
First, there is debate on whether or not wood pellet as biofuel is truly carbon neutral. Burning wood
often emits more CO2 at the smoke stack than coal per unit of energy generated. Biomass
proponents tell us that we can ignore these emissions because they will be reabsorbed by future
tree growth; however, critics contend that Enviva and other pellet manufacturers frequently harvest
whole trees— including hardwoods from bottomland areas — that can take a long time to regrow.
New trees won’t reabsorb these carbon emissions from burning trees now for decades, if ever –
and we need to urgently reduce our carbon emissions without delay if we are to have any chance
of remaining within 1.5 degrees of global warming. This makes the burning of wood pellets an
overall source of CO2 emissions.

To meet the current demand of four Enviva facilities in North Carolina, 80,000 acres of SE forest
were cut down in 2017. By 2030, this figure will jump to 280,000 acres annually. GIS mapping
techniques have discovered three hot spots in the SE U.S., one near the Virginia-North Carolina
border, where heavy wood harvesting from unprotected bottomland hardwood forests was
observed. According to the U.S. Southern Environmental Law Centre, “Supplying the U.K.’s
demand for wood pellets in 2016 alone required harvesting approximately 303 square km of forests in the SE USA. At this level of demand, in a little over one year the U.K. will have harvested an
area the size of the New Forest in England (376 sq. km, or more than 50,000 Wembley stadiums)
for pellet production.” This level of forest destruction dependency can never be sustainable.
“Not all biomass is created equal,” says Bill Schlesinger, the former dean of the Nicholas School
of the Environment at Duke University. “It makes no sense to have Europeans embracing wood
pellets as carbon neutral, while overlooking the carbon dioxide emitted during shipment and the
losses of carbon storage from forests in the United States.” A return to firewood is detrimental for
forests and the climate, argued by Bill Schlesinger in an Insights article just published in the journal
Science last month (Schlesinger 2018).

Second, there is a biodiversity issue. While some argue that increased biomass production leads to
more forests, it is important to remember that for every ton of wood product harvested, there are
habitats destroyed, watersheds degraded, carbon stocks lost, and pollutants emitted from the
logging, transport, and processing of this fuel. In the SE, pine plantations are a major source of
pellet woods. Yet they are valuable in preserving the region’s rich biodiversity. These SE coastal
forests are home to bears, endangered red wolves, salamanders, rare birds, and over 1,800 endemic
plants. According to a 2015 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the potential pellet
sourcing area for existing and proposed mills includes “critical habitat for 25 species that are
federally listed as endangered or imperiled”. The area has been classified as a biodiversity hotspot,
with 85% of its habitat already destroyed. Biomass is only adding to existing pressures on the

Last but not least, there is concern of social injustice. Chemicals and particular matters are released
from wood pellets during manufacturing and burning processes, and may cause health problems.
In the SE, where forests are being cut and processed, low income people of color suffer
disproportionately from high rates of cancer, asthma and other health adversities. A new research
paper has just been published this month in a peer reviewed scientific journal, Environmental
Justice (Stefan and Sam 2018), by two researchers from Tufts University. The paper examines the
burgeoning wood pellet production industry in the Southern U.S., where the facilities are
increasingly marred by controversy around self-proclaimed statements of being “clean” and “green” energy. This new study finds that wood pellet facilities are 50% more likely to be located in
environmental justice designated communities — counties where the poverty level is above the
state medium, and at least 25% of the population is nonwhite.

Make Wood Pellets Sustainable

The biomass industry of wood pellet is on the cusp of expansion, but its consequences could be
devastating. To move forward towards a green future, we need to expose false solutions, push for
sustainable measures, and stand in solidarity with the communities and ecosystems affected by the
inevitable forest destruction. Furthermore, what critics have contended requires to be satisfactorily
addressed. The net effect of the wood pellet market right now has been only to develop the SE as
a “resource colony” for the short-term benefit of a foreign government and utility companies. This
is unacceptable.

To make wood pellets a viable green and sustainable biofuel resource beneficial to everybody, we
should resolve following three matters, (i) to correct the accounting error claiming that wood
pellets are carbon neutral, (ii) to implement adequate sustainable policies to prevent damaging
unique woodlands and protect human health, and (iii) to put a cap on the amount of wood pellets
that would qualify under their policies. Only after these matters are sufficiently tackled, we can
utilize wood pellets as alternative renewable energy source in North Carolina.


Puneet Dwivedi, Madhu Khanna, Robert Bailis and Adrian Ghilardi, Potential greenhouse gas
benefits of transatlantic wood pellet trade, Environ. Res. Lett. 9, 024007 (2014).

K.Karner, C.Dißauer, M.Enigl, C.Strasser, and E.Schmid, Environmental trade-offs between
residential oil-fired and wood pellet heating systems: Forecast scenarios for Austria until 2030,
Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 80, 868 – 879 (2017)

Virginia H. Dale, Keith L. Kline, Esther S. Parish, et al. Status and prospects for renewable
energy using wood pellets from the southeastern United States, Global Change Biology
Bioenergy 9, 1296-1305 (2017).

Christopher S. Galik and Robert C. Abt, Sustainability guidelines and forest market response: an
assessment of European Union pellet demand in the southeastern United States, Global Change
Biology Bioenergy 8, 658-669 (2015).

Anna S. Duden, Pita A. Verweij, Martin Junginger, et al. Modeling the impacts of wood pellet
demand on forest dynamics in southeastern United States, Biofuels, Bioprod. Bioref. (2017); 11,
1007–1029 (2017).

Parish, E. S., A. J. Herzberger, C. C. Phifer, and V. H. Dale, Transatlantic wood pellet trade
demonstrates telecoupled benefits, Ecology and Society 23(1):28 (2018).

William H. Schlesinger, Are wood pellets a green fuel? Science, 359, 1328 – 1329 (2018).

Koester Stefan and Davis Sam, Siting of Wood Pellet Production Facilities in Environmental
Justice Communities in the Southeastern United States, Environmental Justice, 11, 64 – 70

Online Resources Cited in the Essay

Controversy Simmers over NC Wood Pellet Plant

Controversy brews over new North Carolina wood pellet facility

The Wood Pellet Industry in North Carolina

Wood pellets: Renewable, but not carbon neutral

EPA will now classify wood burning as carbon neutral, except it isn’t

Wood Pellets: Green Energy or New Source of CO2 Emissions?

Is wood a green source of energy? Scientists are divided

Carbon Loophole: Why Is Wood Burning Counted as Green Energy?

The Carbon Foot print of Wood Pellets

Let’s Look at the True Cost of Wood Pellet Exports

North Carolina’s Role in the Global Biomass Energy Market

Wood pellet industry creating confusion

Destroying Southern forests for international export

Controversy brews over new North Carolina wood pellet facility

North Carolina’s Role in the Global Biomass Energy Market