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article imageUK burning wood from U.S. forests to meet EU renewables targets

By Karen Graham     Feb 28, 2016 in Environment
Last year, six million tons of wood pellets harvested from forests in Virginia, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida and Alabama were shipped across the Atlantic, to be burned in "biomass" power plants.
This latest figure is almost double the 2013 figures, showing that the wood pellet industry in the U.S. is booming. Based on what industry analysts are projecting, the growth of the wood pellet industry is expected to increase 10-fold by 2020.
The demand for wood pellets by European countries is driven by targets set by the European Union's Renewable Energy Directive. Half of the pellets exported by the U.S. is used to fuel Britain’s massive Drax power station.
Drax power station is slowly being converted from coal-fired to biomass to reduce carbon emissions in order to get “Renewable Obligation certificates” (ROC) for green electricity.
In the UK, green certificates are given to operators of accredited renewable generating stations for the eligible renewable electricity they generate. Operators can trade ROCs with other parties. ROCs are ultimately used by suppliers to demonstrate that they have met their obligation.
If an electricity supplier does not meet the number of certificates under the ROC, they have to pay an equivalent amount into a buyout fund. Administrative costs are taken care of by the buyout fund, and anything left over goes back to the suppliers based on how many ROCs they produced. Sounds difficult, but it actually is simple.
But how sustainable is the wood pellet industry?
Not everyone is delighted over countries using wood pellets to meet "renewable" energy targets, and they are speaking up about the issue. A consortium of NGO's published a paper on September 6, 2015, arguing that the EU should exclude wood from its renewable energy targets.
The group's argument is worth consideration because they claim that hardwood wetland forests are being cut down in the Southeastern U.S., and in effect this is causing a greater lack of biodiversity and adding to the increase in carbon emissions.
When you add to the cutting down of the trees the cost of using transportation to bring the wood to a seaport for shipment across the Atlantic, it is questionable where the sustainability is supposed to be in this practice. You could argue that the forest will regrow, but in the meantime, there is a loss of wildlife habitat, and the soil doesn't store as much biomass as it would if left undisturbed.
It should also be noted that a UK study published in July 2014 showed that energy produced from regenerated forests produced a carbon intensity that was five-times higher than coal.
So the question is this: Why burn wood when there are much cleaner sources of renewables, such as solar, hydro, tidal and wind power?
More about Wood pellets, renewable energy targets, United Kingdom, biomass power plants, us forests
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