A Closer Look At The Wood Pellet Industry

Are wood pellets a renewable energy? In 2009, the European Union declared wood pellets a “carbon-neutral choice,” and in 2018 the EPA followed suit. Yet pellets are less efficient than fossil fuels. To make the same amount of energy, wood pellets release more carbon than both coal and natural gas.

Meanwhile, the export of pellets is revitalizing North Carolina’s struggling timber industry. The state is poised to become the largest exporter of wood pellets in the United States, which is the largest exporting nation in the world. A team of reporters explored the wood pellet industry in eastern North Carolina. Their three-part series, supported by a grant from The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and published in The News & Observer, looks at the connection between the wood pellet economy and climate change; the global policies driving rural development in North Carolina; and the company Enviva, the largest wood pellet manufacturer, which has opened four plants in the state in recent years.

MongaBay.com reporter Justin Catanoso co-authored the series and joins host Frank Stasio live at the Triad Stage in Greensboro to share his reporting on the wood pellet industry.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:
 

They don't have to build new plants to burn wood.

On local wood pellet exports:

One company, the largest wood pellet maker in the world, has its largest base of operation here in North Carolina. It's called Eniva, and they have four wood pellet-making plants [in the state] of the eight that they have in the Southeast. They are producing over 2.5 metric tons of wood pellets a year that they are shipping overseas.

On the European demand for pellets:

In Europe, they have a thing called the renewable energy directive. It was approved in 2009. It was updated in 2018, and both times biomass, or trees, was given the designation of carbon neutral. And so this has created a demand for these wood pellets, because these countries are required by law to reduce their carbon emissions. So they are actually phasing out coal, which is a good thing. The infrastructure is in place for them to burn wood, because they don't have to build new plants to burn wood. Now they're burning these wood pellets, and the emissions are going up, but they're not counting the emissions. So on paper, they can say emission reduction.
 

Our forested land is 85% in private hands, and they are not regulated at all.

On pellets’ carbon neutrality:

The Kyoto Protocol imagined that the U.S. would be replanting trees, but guess what? The U.S. didn't approve the Kyoto Protocol, and so we are under no obligation to replant these trees. Most of these trees are coming from private land in North Carolina. Our forested land is 85% in private hands, and they are not regulated at all. If you had 100 acres of oak and you wanted to sell it to to a group of loggers you could do it, and nobody could stop you. There's no requirement for you to replant it. There's an assumption that it's being replanted, but not a lot of that is happening.

Correction: Catanoso states that wood pellet's carbon neutrality is achieved from replanting trees after 50 to 100 years. In the case of plantation-style loblolly pine stands in the Southeast U.S., that number falls closer to 25 years.