Ariana Howard ‘20
Until recently, burning wood pellets was seen as a sustainable alternative to coal. However, the narrative that any energy source is better for the environment than coal masks the negative impact of the wood pellet industry.
Scot Quaranda, the communications director at Dogwood Alliance, an environmental justice non-profit organization in Asheville, NC, explained that the wood pellet industry “expanded due to Europe’s desire to reduce carbon emissions.” However, Quaranda described this alternative form of energy as “lazy and very damaging.” He stated, “Certain countries in Europe were wholly reliant on coal, and they found biomass to be convenient.”
According to the USDA Foreign Agricultural Information Network, nearly half of the renewable energy generated in the EU comes from the combustion of solid biomass, which includes wood pellets. However, since Europe lacks the forestland to produce wood pellets, countries import them from all over the world, including from the U.S. The USDA Foreign Agricultural Information Network also reported that in 2018, the U.S. supplied approximately 60 percent of the EU’s wood pellets, half of which were in North Carolina through one producer: Enviva.
While Enviva brands its wood pellets as a renewable and sustainable energy source,environmental organizations have concluded the opposite. The Rachel Carson Council, a national environmental organization published the finding that “burning wood pellets releases 65 percent more CO2 than coal per megawatt hour.”
Not all biofuel sources have an equal impact. According to the Cary Institute of Ecosystem
Studies, “Many non-woody biomass fuels, such as switchgrass (Miscanthus), regrow within a year, balancing the emissions from their combustion to the uptake by photosynthesis over short periods.”
However, according to London-based think tank Chatham House, the idea that wood pellets are carbon neutral is based on the false principle that regenerating forests will eventually recapture the carbon emitted through the process of cutting down the trees. Not only does this “carbon debt” fail to get repaid for 35 to 50 years, according to the Audubon Society, but also the carbon released through the burning, harvesting and transporting of the trees is not accounted for when calculating the total carbon released. According to the Rachel Carson council, Enviva alone is responsible for “50 acres a day of clear-cut land.”
Quaranda asserted, “[Wood pellet manufacturers] are working from a false premise.” The idea that if you cut down a tree and burn it and then plant another tree, then it’s carbon neutral,Quaranda explained, “That’s not real science.”
With these new findings, the EU will not achieve its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050 aslong as wood pellets remain in the picture. “If this gets blown open, then [the EU’s] carbon emission data is going to skyrocket,” Quaranda stated.
In addition to carbon emissions and deforestation, the “health and quality of life” of communities that neighbor wood pellet production plants is also being threatened, Quaranda explains. Some of the principle impacts of wood pellet production plants include noise, dust, truck traffic and poor air quality.
All of Enviva’s wood pellet plants are located in the southeast and there are currently four wood pellet plants that exist in North Carolina. These plants are located in Garysburg, Faison, Ahoskie and Hamlet, which are poor and predominantly black and Latino communities.
Currently, the median annual household income ranges between $23,607 in Garysburg (98.79 percent black or Latino) to $40,156 in Faison (56.8 percent black or latino), according to Data USA. The median annual household income in the United States is $61,937. Quaranda asserted,“[Eniva] is picking communities where they think they are going to get zero resistance.”
Quaranda fears that there is a lack of mobilization to protest the wood pellet industry because the general population has an insufficient understanding of how nature, particularly forests, benefit humans. Quaranda stated, “In my mind, what gets young people excited about working on climate change is when they make the connection between forests and our overall health […] if we start to make more of these connections, then more people are going to go, ‘this is ridiculous that we are cutting down our best defense to combat climate change.’”
According to the environmental justice organization, The Climate Chat, not enough of these conversations are happening. While seven in ten Americans believe clean energy should be a high priority for the federal government, only four in ten Americans say they talk about climate change with their family and friends. “People just don’t talk about climate change even if they believe it is happening,” McKenzie noted.
Nina Yao ‘21, an Environmental Studies major, emphasized: “If no one talks about [climate change], no one is going to do anything about it.”
Quaranda believes that there is a lack of empathy when it comes to the environment because of how disconnected we have become to it. “What it’s going to take is a reconnection to the rest of nature…if we could be talking about the importance of forests; I think that’s the piece that it’s going to take.”