Clearcutting forests for biomass to keep aging coal plants operating – the biomass industry’s “Clean Power” plan

The wood pellet industry is clearcutting bottomland hardwood forests, leaving nothing but “stumps and puddles,” as reported by Joby Warrick of the Washington Post.

Those splendid trees are debarked, chipped, cooked, and extruded – at huge energy cost – to become wood pellets that are shipped to the United Kingdom and burned, mostly at the largest coal-fired (now partly wood-fired) plant in the UK,  Drax.

Image: Drax Power Station as seen from a train travelling north on the main East Coast line. © Copyright Dave Pickersgill and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Even though burning wood in power plants emits upwards of 50 percent more CO2 than coal per megawatt-hour, and re-growing trees to take up an equivalent amount of carbon takes decades, the UK system treats wood-burning power plants as having zero emissions.

Now, not content with the European market, the pellet industry wants to fuel power plants in the US with forests, too.  An upcoming pellet industry conference promises to keep “aging coal plant assets” operating under EPA’s Clean Power Plan.  One of the sponsors of the conference is Enviva, the very pellet company featured in the Washington Post article as clearcutting hardwood forests for feedstock.


Coal plants in the United States have already converted to burning wood, like the three plants that Dominion Energy Resources converted in Virginia.  These plants now emit more CO2 than they did when they were burning coal – all while collecting millions in taxpayer-funded renewable energy subsidies and tax credits.  If that doesn’t make you a renewable energy cynic, what will?

Policymakers need to wake up to the threat that biomass energy presents to forests and the climate. Some have – including Senators Warren and Markey, and Representative Connolly of Virginia.  But others, like Maine Senator Angus King, want to legislate biomass as having zero emissions, trampling the science entirely.

It’s an inconvenient truth that biomass energy emits more CO2 than coal, but the biomass industry has often claimed they only burn “waste” wood.  Now that it’s clear that the plan is to cut forests to fuel coal plants, will policymakers finally get it?  It’s time to stop referring to this dirty, environmentally destructive industry as “clean” energy, and start calling it what it is – an obscenity.

Update, 12:30 EST: Southern Environmental Law Center has just released an important study showing the true carbon cost of the Enviva pellet plants mentioned in the Washington Post Article.  The study concludes that wood pellets are, essentially, a disaster for the climate, as well as forests.


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