NOLL: Of wood pellets and climate change

Dr. Michael Noll

“Welcome to Adel, City of Wood Pellets” may soon be the new logo for our neighbor to the north, whose leadership wants to embrace an unsustainable branch of the energy sector that does not seem to care one iota about pollution and the climate crisis our planet is facing.

Representatives from around the world have been attending the U.N.’s climate summit in Glasgow to work together to tackle the most daring challenge of our time – climate change.

In recent years, the world has seen record heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods and storms, while the livelihood of millions living near shorelines is threatened by rising sea water levels. The U.S. has not been spared from this.

Sir Richard Attenborough, one of the world’s most respected voices when it comes to our understanding of a planet we call home, recently stated that “perhaps the fact that the people most affected by climate change are no longer some imagined future generation but young people alive today — perhaps that will give us the impetus we need to rewrite our story.”

Perhaps. If only there weren’t issues like selfishness and greed.

To be clear, this column is not about activities of a lumber industry that provides materials for construction, the production of furniture or paper, etc., but this is about the increasing use of our state’s natural resources to produce wood pellets.

What’s the problem with wood pellets and biomass energy you ask?

As I wrote in 2019 (“On Georgia’s erroneous biomass scheme”), there are several issues members of Georgia’s Public Service Commission and Adel’s leadership like to ignore:

Biomass energy is dirty: biomass incinerators emit even more particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide than coal firing plants. As our community learned in 2010, based on information we received from Eric Cornwell with the Environmental Protection Division, the once proposed “Wiregrass Biomass Plant” would have produced 39% more PM, 73% more SO2 and 80% more NOX than the once proposed coal firing plant (“Plant Washington”) in Sandersville, Georgia. 

In addition, fleets of diesel trucks need to haul whole trees to wood pellet plants, where they are turned into fuel or to transport that fuel to biomass incinerators, which must be kept running around the clock. These fleets of diesel trucks not only contribute to existing air pollution but they also create substantial noise pollution along their routes of transport and delivery.

Biomass energy is unsafe: organizations like the American Lung Association are opposed to this form of energy production due to its significant health risks, particularly to young children and the elderly. Among other things, an increase in PM pollution leads to higher mortality rates, to more problems with cardiovascular diseases (including heart attacks) and to a worsening of respiratory illnesses (e.g. asthma, COPD).

Biomass energy is unsustainable: within the last decade, the southeastern U.S. has turned into the world’s “wood basket.” Each year, millions of tons of wood pellets are shipped from states like North Carolina and Georgia across the Atlantic, especially to countries like the U.K. and the Netherlands. 

This biomass frenzy based on the fallacy that biomass energy is “green and carbon neutral” has led wood pellet manufacturers like Enviva to turn our natural resources into fuel, and to devastate habitats across the southeastern U.S. without any forethought of the consequences of such actions for future generations.

The proposed wood pellet plant in Adel plans to annually produce 500,000 tons of wood pellets for shipment to Europe. Such an enormous amount would require the cutting of trees from about 12,000 wooded acres across a sourcing radius of up to 75 miles in southern Georgia. If you then realize that there are already dozens of wood pellet plants in operation across the Southeast as more plants are proposed, there can be no doubt that such biomass clearcutting cannot be sustainable.

Biomass energy threatens minority neighborhoods: polluting industries often target poor communities and the biomass energy sector is no exception. When we fought against a biomass incinerator in Valdosta in 2010, it was not only because biomass energy is dirty and unsafe, but also because the proposed location for the plant was near a minority neighborhood. There were even two elementary schools nearby. 

Not surprisingly, the location for the proposed wood pellet plant in Adel is also sited near a predominantly Black neighborhood.

Biomass energy is not carbon neutral: our forests store large amounts of carbon in the form of trees which over decades turned carbon dioxide in our atmosphere into oxygen and carbon (i.e., biomass). Pretending that the burning of trees will not contribute to greenhouse gas emissions is simply bewildering. It is also important to note that older trees sequester more carbon than younger trees, which makes the large-scale harvest of mature trees for the biomass industry even more problematic.

The notion that biomass energy is carbon neutral has been debunked for some time, and in 2019 the European Academies Sciences Advisory Council unequivocally called for “international action to climate-damaging forest bioenergy schemes.” Simply put, they have come to the realization that said schemes not only threaten natural resources worldwide and the biodiversity they contain but they also make our current climate crisis worse.

Thus, earlier this year, the Dutch voted to stop subsidizing the biomass industry and just a few weeks ago, Drax, an energy giant located in the U.K., which sources most of its wood pellets from the southeastern U.S., has been booted from an investment index of clean energy companies. And this is just the beginning.

Biomass energy simply is not what it claims to be, and no promises of jobs or economic development by elected representatives, who often have a conflict of interest and cannot keep these promises, will change that.

Why anyone still believes that the burning of wood, a more than 10,000-year-old strategy of energy production, is an appropriate technology for the 21st century, is mindboggling. The best path forward is to expand the use of truly clean and renewable forms of energy production like solar and wind, while improving our efforts in energy conservation and energy efficiency.

We must keep existing forests intact (aside from standard forestry practices and sustainable use of trees for non-biomass-energy sectors) and even expand them. Trees not only offer us the best CO2 capturing technology currently available but our forests also provide habitats for countless species and improve our quality of life.

Dr. Michael G. Noll is president of Wiregrass Activists for Clean Energy and is a member of The Valdosta Daily Times editorial board.

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