S2E2. Explainer: The Controversy over Wood Pellets
On this episode of Free Range, Host Mike Livermore is joined by two University of Virginia Law students, Matt Disandro and Elizabeth Putfark, who have produced this explainer episode on the pros and cons of wood pellets as a replacement for fossil fuels.
To make wood pellets, wood from trees is broken apart, heated to reduce moisture, converted to a fine powder, and compressed to form dense, short pellets. According to Daniel Reinemann from Bioenergy Europe, a nonprofit based in Brussels that advocates for biomass energy, wood pellets are the closest thing that the biomass market has to a commodity. (6:50-8:09)
Dr. Knight, the Group Director of Sustainability at the U.K energy company Drax, explains the key difference between biomass and fossil fuels: fossil fuels take millions of years to turn biological matter into fuel; biomass, on the other hand, was carbon in the sky a few years ago. Disandro, Putfark, Knight, and Reinemann discuss carbon sequestration, the carbon dividend, and the potential technology known as “BECCS” – bioenergy carbon capture and storage. Many policies encourage the use of wood pellets, including the European Union Renewable Energy Directive. (8:10-19:57)
The biomass industry doesn’t just affect Europe; it also impacts wood pellet manufacturers in the Southeast United States, which is very rich in timber. To discuss the market for pellets in the Southeast US, Disandro and Putfark are joined by Professor Bob Abt, a forest economist at North Carolina State University. Abt discusses the tradeoffs and distributional consequences of the growing demand for wood pellets from the Southeast. (19:58-24:42)
Notwithstanding support in the EU for wood pellets, conservationists have been raising alarms. Lousie Guillot, a journalist at Politico, provides some background on the controversy. (24:43-26:46) According to Dr. Mary Booth, the director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity’s science and advocacy work, burning wood is not a carbon neutral energy source. Dr. Booth and the hosts discuss the urgency of reducing emissions now and the important role trees play in taking carbon out of the atmosphere. (26:46 – 31:20) One feature of the controversy is how the Renewable Energy Directive classifying wood pellets as a zero-carbon energy source, despite objections from some environmentalists. (31:21 – 33:27)
An additional question is whether wood pellets are mostly derived from forest refuse -- which is the treetops, branches, and diseased trees left behind from logging – rather than whole trees. Heather Hillaker, at the Southern Environmental Law Center, explains her research on wood pellet sourcing in the U.S. Southeast. Using satellite imagery, SELC’s geospatial team found that 84% of the hardwood material being used for bioenergy came from whole trees instead of refuse. Guillot shares details of similar problems happening in European forests. (33:28 – 38:49) Hillaker goes on to discusses the social and community impacts of the wood pellet mills on environmental justice communities. (38:51 – 44:59)
Livermore, Disandro and Putfark wrap up the episode by discussing their own views on the pros and cons of wood pellets and what, if anything, the wood pellets experience teaches about broader issues in climate policy. (45:00 – 51:43)