North Carolina sends conflicting messages on burning wood as fuel

By: - October 2, 2019 2:23 pm

Trees are ground into wood pellets, which are then shipped to the United Kingdom, where they are burned for fuel. (Photo: Creative Commons)

(Photo: Creative Commons)

DEQ approves expansion of wood pellet facility a week after declaring industry fails to advance state’s clean energy goals

In a strongly-worded passage in its Clean Energy Plan last week, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality rejected the idea that burning trees for fuel qualifies as low-carbon, renewable energy.

Along with other state agencies, DEQ presented its final policy recommendations to meet the requirements of Executive Order 80 to Gov. Roy Cooper last week.

The governor signed EO 80 nearly a year ago, calling for a 40 percent reduction in statewide greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, compared to 2005 levels. The order also required DEQ to develop a clean energy plan for North Carolina.

In addition to setting renewable energy benchmarks, DEQ’s 146-page report sets a goal of reducing carbon emissions from electric generating power by 70 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The state should be “carbon-neutral” by 2050, the report says.

And carbon-neutral, DEQ wrote, does not include wood.

“Currently, the wood pellet industry does not contribute to NC’s energy generation portfolio and does not advance NC’s clean energy economy,” reads DEQ’s portion of the Clean Energy Plan.

However, on Wednesday, within a week of issuing its Clean Energy Plan, DEQ approved an air permit for the expansion of the Enviva wood pellet plant in Sampson County.

Environmental advocates have repeatedly urged state regulators to deny such permits and implement a moratorium on the wood pellet industry in North Carolina until its cumulative impacts are assessed.

Under a settlement agreement, Enviva has agreed to install additional equipment to control emissions of volatile organic compounds and hazardous air pollutants.The permit requires applications for that control equipment to be submitted within six months.

DEQ spokeswoman Sharon Martin told Policy Watch that the Clean Energy Plan “specifically examined the role of wood pellets in North Carolina’s energy generation. However, the permitting of the facilities is governed by existing state laws, rules and regulations, which are applied in the review of air quality permits.”

The Dogwood Alliance, an Asheville-based nonprofit that advocates for the protection of forests,  released a statement about the Clean Energy Plan, underscoring the importance of forests in storing carbon.

“Industrial forestlands store far less carbon than the native forests they have replaced.  On intensively managed timberlands and tree plantations, the amount stored has been reduced by roughly half.”

A report prepared for the alliance by scientists at the Center for Sustainable Economy shows that the logging and pellet industries’ carbon dioxide emissions average 45 million tons per year.

This figure accounts for the carbon released during timber harvests, wood decay, the burning of wood, the loss of carbon sinks, and carbon storage in long-lived wood products, such as furniture.

The largest emitter, electric-power generation, produces 52.7 million tons of carbon dioxide annually; transportation ranks second, with 48.7 million tons, according to the state’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory.

DEQ acknowledged “the science regarding carbon neutrality and accounting methods are contentious issues,” adding that burning wood releases carbon into the atmosphere at a faster pace than if the forests were left intact to absorb and sequester carbon dioxide emitted from human-made sources.

“Biomass energy is carbon-neutral if growing the biomass removes as much CO2 as is emitted into the atmosphere from its combustion,” the report reads.

But that’s not how the pellet-making process works. The entire cradle-to-grave process is carbon-heavy. Enviva, which operates four plants in the state and more throughout the Southeast, uses trees logged from North Carolina forests — some of them hardwoods — which removes some of the valuable “carbon sinks” from the landscape. Trees are carbon sinks because they absorb and store carbon dioxide.

Obtaining the pellets requires the deforestation of parts of eastern North Carolina, fragmenting wildlife habitats and removing natural flood control provided by large stands of trees.

Once the trees arrive at an Enviva plant, they are ground into kibble-size pellets; that process also emits pollutants into the air, the amount of which is regulated by state air permits.

The company then transports the pellets by truck or rail to the state ports — again, using carbon-emitting transportation — where they are loaded onto a carbon-emitting ship and hauled across the Atlantic to the United Kingdom. There, in lieu of coal, the UK burns the pellets, which emits carbon dioxide, to fire electricity-generating power plants.

In response to a Policy Watch inquiry, an Enviva spokesperson forwarded the following statement:

Like the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UN IPCC), North Carolina already recognizes the importance of sustainable wood biomass. Biomass is a qualifying technology for meeting the renewable energy generation goals laid out in the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard and utilities are already making use of this technology.

Biomass is currently a part of North Carolina’s energy generation portfolio and must remain that way. In fact, the Clean Energy Plan (the Plan) points out that biomass represents 2% of the state’s electricity generation (as displayed on page 19 of the report in Figure 1). This isn’t new. Biomass has been part of the North Carolina Renewable Energy Portfolio since 2005. There are various plants across the state, including one in New Bern owned by Craven Wood Energy, which has been operational since the 1990’s.

While the current Plan draft contradicts statements made about biomass in both the states’ January 2019 GHG Inventory Report, as well as the UN IPCC’s recommended pathways, biomass should absolutely be a key part of the Plan. It can be utilized effectively to meet state-wide goals for clean energy and emissions reduction by displacing fossil fuels and fortifying carbon stocks on the landscape.”

Founded in 2004, Enviva is based in Maryland. The company is largely responsible for the escalation of the wood pellet industry in North Carolina and the Southeast, even though the pellets go overseas.

The company’s four North Carolina plants are in low-income neighborhoods or communities of color in Hamlet, Ahoskie, Garysburg and Sampson County. This raises environmental justice concerns for the health of those areas already disproportionately burdened by polluting industries.

As part of the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard, passed by the legislature in 2007, electricity generated from biomass is eligible for Renewable Energy Credits. Several North Carolina facilities use small amounts of wood waste as fuel, including Capital Power in Roxboro and Southport (the facilities also burn tires), as well as other plants in the Southeast.

Since the state passed its REPS, the number of renewable energy credits for wood waste has increased dramatically. According to the NC Renewable Energy Tracking System, from 2008 to 2018, the number of credits allocated for wood waste increased by 865 percent: from 118,344 credits to more than 1.1 million.

In 2008, credits for wood waste accounted for 11.1 percent of the state’s total. In 2018, that figure had dipped slightly, to 10.8 percent.

By comparison, the number of credits for solar photo-voltaic energy has soared over the same time period: 1.6 million percent, from just 300 in 2008 to 4.7 million last year. In 2008, solar PV credits composed a minute portion of the credits; now the energy source accounts for more than 45 percent.

The UK has been using biomass to attain renewable energy benchmarks legally required by the European Union. The biomass industry reasons that because trees can be regrown, burning them is “renewable energy.”

DEQ wrote that this accounting method, which “uses the state’s natural resources to meet foreign markets’ carbon reduction goals” should be “challenged at the national and international level.”

But scientific evidence shows that calling biomass “renewable” is a matter of semantics. DEQ cites a 2018 study in which “scientists concluded that the use of wood as fuel is likely to result in net carbon dioxide emissions and may endanger forest biodiversity.”

If Enviva is allowed to expand, the Dogwood Alliance said, an additional 8,700 acres of North Carolina’s forests will be destroyed each year to meet foreign markets’ demands for biomass and the state will become the largest exporter of wood pellets in the nation.

“The implications of the Cooper administration’s stance on biomass and the wood pellet industry,” the alliance added, “are “playing out in real time.”

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.