How America’s Trees Are Powering Europe’s Renewable Energy Goals
By Emma Rubin
The European Union in 2020 was sourcing 21.3% of its energy from renewable sourcesexceeding his 2009 goal. With most of the continent’s energy coming from oil and petroleum products, his announcement was one of the first ambitious global pledges to tackle climate change. Among the wide range of renewable energy sources on which Europe relied, one source accounted for nearly half of the continent’s renewable supply: biomass.
Broadly speaking, biomass is any organic material that is used as fuel and can include manure, agricultural or industrial waste, garbage, and most importantly, wood. Burning wood as fuel is nothing new: as countries move away from coal and other fossil fuels, the popularity of biomass is growing, leading to an increase in demand for wood pellets.
Stacker data quoted from international trade center, Eurostatand the Southern Environmental Law Center to examine how the growing US wood pellet industry is fueling European energy, despite its controversial environmental reputation.
The 1997 Kyoto Protocol first saw wood pellets as a carbon-neutral energy source. The world was starting to think more seriously about climate change at the time, and pellets became an easy substitute for moving away from coal-fired installations. Woody biomass companies replant trees while harvesting timber, allowing young forests to absorb carbon while justifying biomass as a renewable energy source. But the carbon neutrality of biomass is not immediate: it takes years for new young trees to reach the carbon absorption capacity of older trees being harvested. During this time, the wood pellets are burned and emit the CO2 once stored by the wood. The resulting carbon debt can take decades for newly planted trees to be offset.
Scientists also note that viewing wood pellets as carbon neutral overlooks supply chain emissions. An analysis of the Environmental Integrity Project published in 2018 found that 21 wood pellet facilities exporting to Europe were emitting 16,000 tonnes of air pollutants per year. Transport in transatlantic ships is another phase often overlooked in woody biomass carbon calculations.
Scientists have begun to question the sustainability of woody biomass and whether the displacement of a fossil fuel is now causing the disruption of forest ecosystems, while continuing to emit greenhouse gases. Read on to learn more about the complexities of renewable energy.
EU aims for renewables to make up 40% of its energy supply by 2030
The last Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published in April 2022, warns that efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions must be taken more seriously. Unless countries make concerted efforts to reduce emissions by 2025, the report says, the world may not be able to stop global temperatures from rising by 1.5 degrees Celsius (or 2. 7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. The pressure on countries to meet climate promises and limit their dependence on fossil fuels has accelerated since the first United Nations Earth Summit in 1972, with European Union countries making ambitious pledges to the decades to come.
The supply of renewable energies in Europe has increased by 237% since 1990. The UK has maintained its targets even after Brexit, targeting 100% renewable energy by 2035. The growing amount of gigawatts of renewable energy means that demand is accelerating in the renewable energy sector.
Solid biomass still accounts for around 45% of renewable energy
Solar and wind power have seen the fastest growth since 1990, but the EU still derives nearly half of its renewable energy supply from combustible biomass. Data on solid biofuels cannot be disaggregated by origin, meaning that the exact extent of wood-based biomass in Europe’s energy supply is not available. However, estimates suggest that forestry represents at least 60% of European biomass.
Biomass power plants are eligible to receive renewable energy subsidies, which boosts their popularity. Biomass subsidies in the EU have remained stable over the past five years. A report from the European Commission Directorate General for Energy found that at least €103 billion has benefited biomass power plants since 2015, less than the €170 billion and €113 billion spent on subsidizing solar and wind respectively.
More … than 500 scientists signed a letter to President Joe Biden and the leaders of Japan, the European Council, the European Commission and the United Nations urging against subsidies and incentives for biofuels. Last year, the Netherlands, which imported almost 1.3 million tons wood pellets in the United States in 2021 – ended subsidies on new biomass power plants. Rather, the country seeks to develop a disposal policy and rely on other renewable energies.
The largest wood pellet plants are in the southern United States
As pressure mounts, particularly in Europe, to meet renewable energy targets, the demand for wood pellets is increasing. The forests of Germany, Sweden and Latvia have always been main suppliers of this fuel. To meet demand from less self-sufficient countries, the southern United States has become a hub for wood pellet production: More than 23 mills produce a combined capacity of 10.5 million tonnes of pellets per year. The value of US wood pellet exports to Europe has increased nearly 60% over the past five years.
The South is also home to America’s wood pellet industry, thanks in large part to the region’s forests. The forests cover majority of land in most southern states, and the ecosystems are diverse. But above all, many of these forests belong to private owners. Although states like Washington and Oregon are home to more forest area than the southeastern states, most of their ecosystems are publicly owned. The latest estimates for the largest wood pellet exporters in 2021 showed that most forests are privately owned in Georgia, Louisiana, Floridaand Alabama.
Three companies own about two-thirds of southern wood pellet factories exporting to Europe
According to data from Environmental Paper Network and the Southern Center for Environmental Law. Other pellet manufacturers operate in the South, such as Lignetics, which is consumer-focused, not business-focused.
Built in 1974, Drax Power Station was the last coal-fired power station in the UK, originally sourcing coal from the surrounding Yorkshire region. Now Drax has converted almost entirely to biomass, relying on a growing number of plants across North America to fuel the transition. An acquisition of Pinnacle Renewable Energy in 2021 means Drax now owns 17 mills across Canada and the southern United States.
Enviva has also grown rapidly to meet the demands of its partners in Europe, the UK and Japan. Since 2011, it has opened nine factories with a combined capacity of 5.4 million tonnes. Enviva is currently building another plant in Lucedale, Mississippi, and has proposals for two additional plants in Mississippi and Alabama.