Emissions reductions, however, may prove smaller and slower than once expected
By PETER FAIRLEY / APRIL 2012
n energy export boom is sweeping U.S. forests. The trees are fast becoming a crucial energy supply for European power producers seeking to meet the European Union’s goal for renewable energy use and carbon emissions reductions. Blending in biomass to coal-fired power stations is an increasingly popular strategy to meet the European targets, which call for renewable sources to meet 20 percent of energy demand by 2020 and for a 20 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels.
Experts in life-cycle analysis, however, question whether burning biomass to generate power does Earth’s atmosphere much good. That’s because trees harvested expressly for power generation—which European Commission–financed research suggests will provide at least two thirds of utilities’ biomass supply needs through 2030—potentially could have grown larger and absorbed more carbon from the atmosphere if they had been left unharvested.
Regulators appear to be listening. Late last year, the Commission’s European Environment Agency and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded independently that harvesting trees for power generation and biofuels production could actually raise atmospheric carbon levels in some cases. As a result, both Washington, D.C., and Brussels are reassessing how to count emissions from biomass combustion.
And yet, even with that policy challenge lurking, the biomass industry is quickly expanding, especially in the southeastern United States, where giant pelletizing plants are popping up to turn trees into a ready-to-burn export commodity. In 2011 the power company RWE, based in Essen, Germany, commissioned the world’s largest wood pellet plant, near Waycross, Ga. The plant dries, crushes, and presses wood from local pine tree plantations into 750 000 metric tons of pellets annually—all of it destined for RWE power stations in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
Meanwhile, Enviva, based in Bethesda, Md., is fashioning itself into a formidable supplier of wood fuel. At the close of 2011, the firm began shipping pellets from its plant in Ahoskie, N.C., which produces 350 000 metric tons per year. Enviva is now building a still larger facility nearby in Northampton County, N.C., and is planning another in Courtland, Va.
read more: http://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/renewables/europe-looks-to-north-americas-forests-to-meet-renewable-energy-goals