Second of four parts
The Many Benefits of Our Forests
The prospect that North Carolina’s forests would become a resource for fuel to generate electricity is by no means a new idea.
But even after a 2010 law added wood to the list of renewable sources pushed — sometimes with ample incentives — by state policy makers, there was no significant response by power companies in the state to add wood pellets to their fuel portfolio.
That changed significantly in the past few years, not here but overseas, with the adoption of rules and incentives in the European Union that made pelletized wood a more attractive fuel. While domestic demand remained weak, mainly due to growth in natural gas supplies, across the Atlantic the market was starting to take off.
Now, the forests of the southeastern U.S. are a growing source of fuel for power plants in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Belgium, countries where power suppliers are using wood pellets to replace coal. In North Carolina, with a plan in the works for more pellet manufacturing plants and major shipping facilities at the state ports in Morehead City and Wilmington, there’s a renewed focus on how the surge in demand will ultimately affect the state’s 18 million acres of wood land.
The N.C. Environmental Management Commission in a 2010 report found that “the use of woody biomass for energy production has a broad range of potential impacts that, without adequate safeguards, could be harmful for the environment, public health and culture of the State.”
Converting natural forests to plantations to grow trees as fuel could severely affect biodiversity and wildlife, the report noted. Water quality could also suffer. The National Wildlife Federation in a March 2010 report echoed many of the same fears from a nationwide perspective.
Eastern North Carolina would seem most vulnerable since that’s where most of the large tracts of privately owned woodland are.
Robert Hosford, international marketing specialist with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said the sustainability of the forests that will supply new pellet mills has been a focus of discussions.
Hosford, who is working with a European client on the project, said regular audits of the suppliers to make sure sustainable practices are in place are already part of the deal, with an emphasis on using certified sustainable forests. Several potential areas, he said, already have conservation requirements on them and some are already certified and sustainably managed.
“The standards are going to be tightly controlled,” he said. “The folks in Europe will not take the product unless it’s handled properly.”
Hosford said the N.C. Forest Service estimates that in hardwood and softwood combined North Carolina has an annual 16 million metric tons that could be harvested. Right now, for all uses, from chips to lumber, the annual harvest is around 6 million metric tons.
The proposed wood pellet shipping facilities, supported by at least three new pellet plants, would ship an additional 1.7 million metric tons to start with a goal of reaching 4 million metric tons by 2020.
The location of the harvest also plays a role in measuring the sustainability, Hosford said, with a target range of 50 to 60 miles from the ports. For the European power producers to get sustainability tax incentives, he said, they have to know the cost in carbon of transportation from pellet mill to port and from port to its final destination.
“They’re analyzing this down to the nth degree,” Hosford said.
Clay Alitzer, a utilization forester with the state forest service, has analyzed the available timber in the state’s coastal plain to determine if the resources are there. He said the wood being sent to the pellet mills will mainly come from lands being harvested for other reasons.
He said it’s unlikely that any landowner will conduct a harvest solely for pellet production.
“It doesn’t pay for itself,” he said.
Landowners will still look to saw timber and pulp wood as main sources of revenue, but the pellet market opens up another stream and another use for smaller diameter trees — likely those less than five or six inches — and scraps and leftovers from larger ones.
“I think a lot of what will go to the pellet mills will be limbs and tops,” he said.
Researchers for the Southern Environmental Law Center came to a different conclusion. As the pellet industry expands in the Southeast, biomass energy will increasingly come from cutting standing trees instead of using wood residues from sawmills and other sources, they concluded in a study published last year. The study emphasizes the need to balance forest ecosystem health and related values, such as drinking water and wildlife habitat, with renewable energy objectives.
“While biomass offers some environmental benefits, any expanded use of logging residue and live trees will affect forest structure and nutrient cycling,” said Robert Perschel, eastern forests director with Forest Guild. “This raises questions of long-term forest health and other environmental factors, such as water quality and wildlife habitat, that need to be addressed by further study and reasonable guidelines for the industry.”
Thursday: What policies will protect the state’s forest