To cut carbon from their power plants, Europeans cutting trees in the South … – Florida Times

November 10, 2014 Posted by admin

Southern forests are drawing uncounted millions of dollars in foreign spending to help utilities overseas meet carbon-emission rules that this country is still debating as tools to limit climate change.

What those rules will mean for the environment is in dispute, and will doubtless be contested again based on findings the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released this month.

But there is money being made now selling wood pellets and other plant fiber, all called biomass, that’s burned as fuel at a growing number of power plants, many of them overseas.

By 2020, the U.S. International Trade Administration projected this year, pellet exports to Europe could be between five and 15 times what they were in 2012.

The world’s largest wood pellet factory, in Waycross, Ga., opened three years ago to supply fuel to utilities in Europe.

“They’ve been a great boost to this community,” said Bob Hereford, executive director of the Waycross-Ware County Development Authority. “What they’re shipping out of here every day to Savannah, to the ports, is a great boost to CSX, a great boost to all of us.”

The Waycross factory is up for sale now, but bullish forecasts have other biomass businesses chasing far-flung growth plans. A company scheduled to buy a North Florida pellet factory early next year, Enviva Partners LP, last month filed paperwork for a $100 million initial public stock offering.

Investments like that are giving pause to federal officials, who want to control carbon emissions but don’t want to shut down markets that mean jobs for tree farmers and at ports.

“Certainly when it relates to biomass, there is a local economic development [issue] — largely a rural economic development issue — there that needs to be balanced,” said Mike Boots, an adviser to President Barack Obama who chairs the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

“We are having conversations within the administration … on how you strike that balance,” Boots told the Times-Union. “And I think the jury is still out on exactly where that falls.”

Worries that rising carbon levels are causing the planet to heat up and weather patterns to shift led to countries around the globe to set limits on carbon discharges by power plants. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this year proposed rules for existing power plants that are still being debated, while other countries have had their own rules for several years. By 2030, European Union utilities are supposed to set carbon emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels.

Burning biomass at power plants releases carbon into the atmosphere, just like burning coal does.

But emissions rules already used in Europe treat biomass as “carbon neutral,” basically because trees and other plants that are harvested will grow back and absorb carbon as they do. For Europeans, that makes American forests good as gold.

“We needed to find a low-carbon solution,” Dorothy Thompson, the CEO of British power company Drax Group, told BBC Radio last year, saying carbon taxes in Britain would raise costs to her company eight-fold by 2020. “When we burn biomass, we don’t pay that, because biomass is carbon-neutral.”

Shipping wood from another continent can make pellets three times as expensive as coal, Thompson said, but not having carbon taxes made wood competitive.

Drax signed a contract last year to buy wood from Georgia Biomass LLC, the Waycross factory designed to churn out 750,000 metric tons of pellets per year.

Although Georgia Biomass had announced deals through 2019, a spokeswoman for its German parent company, RWE Innogy, said by email the firm “no longer considers biomass plants to be [a] core business” and has “decided to initiate the divestiture of Georgia Biomass.”

Spokeswoman Sarah Knauber declined to discuss details of the sale and did not address other emailed questions. Phone messages to Georgia Biomass were not returned.

Estimates of demand for new wood pellets vary widely, but are pointed upward, fast.

In its stock offering, Enviva cited research by an analyst who projected American exports would rise from 9.9 million metric tons in 2013 to 38 million in 2020.

The International Trade Administration estimate, which predicted rising demand in Korea as well as Europe, said the need for American exports in 2020 could range from 25 million to 70 million metric tons.

Ports in Savannah and Brunswick shipped just over a million metric tons of pellets last year, according to Georgia Ports Authority records. Jacksonville’s port “handled these products on occasion in the past but we are not currently,” Port Authority spokeswoman Nancy Rubin said.

The Waycross plant, which is still operating, receives truckloads of timber that’s loaded into a machine that removes tree bark and sends stripped lengths of wood through a chipper. The chips created by that machine are later run through a dryer and a hammer mill and then “pelletized,” pressed into small, lightweight pieces that are sent by train to specially built storage domes at Savannah’s port, then shipped to ports in England, Denmark, Spain and elsewhere.

Environmental activists had worried the pellet industry could lead to foresters clearing wetland trees that are important to the ecology of the area’s rivers and swamps. But that doesn’t seem to be happening in Waycross, said Satilla Riverkeeper Ashby Nix, who said she toured the plant and was relieved to see only pines being turned into pellets.

She was troubled, however, by the size of the timber being used.

“They actually use some pretty large trees,” said Nix, who noted that biomass is often described as using small, leftover pieces of scrap and thin limbs. “I think that’s a bit of a misconception. … It’s maybe different than what was portrayed to me.” In July, a French company, Bureau Veritas, certified Georgia Biomass was meeting sustainability standards set by the Forest Stewardship Council, an advocacy group.

Trucks a reporter saw entering the plant recently carried a mix of thin stalks of trees and others that were heftier, but generally not large enough to cut into boards.

Bill Sapp, a senior attorney with the nonprofit Southern Environmental Law Center office in Atlanta, said some trees he saw when he visited the Waycross plant looked to be about 15 inches in diameter, far different from the scraps of unusable debris described by biomass advocates.

”I didn’t see any evidence of anything but logs,” Sapp said.

That also knocks a hole in theories about saving carbon by using biomass, said Derb Carter, who heads the Law Center’s office in Chapel Hill, N.C.

The idea that harvesting biomass is carbon-neutral is “fundamentally flawed,” said Carter, who said his group is working with activists in Europe to try to reopen debate about what rules European states should set for its use in power plants.

A 2012 study that the law center and the National Wildlife Federation co-sponsored concluded that harvesting and burning biomass might be a net loss for the environment for decades to come, because it would take 35 to 50 years for new plant growth to absorb enough carbon to be less environmentally harmful than burning coal.

Biomass is also burned at some domestic power plants, such as the Gainesville Renewable Energy Center, built with the intention of using sustainable wood sources. The 102.5-megawatt plant was certified last week by the Forest Stewardship Council as meeting its “chain of custody” standards for renewable wood.

Boots, the White House adviser, said scientists are still trying to understand all the factors that go into measuring biomass impacts, but said there’s a strong motive to use fuel from American forests.

“We tend to think that where you can have cleaner sources, we should have energy, we should be pursuing that,” Boots said. “…There is also valuable resource there. We have a lot of that in this country and we need to balance that with the desire to keep those systems in place both as working forests but as carbon drains.”

Steve Patterson: (904) 359-4263

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