The Case for Importing Sustainable Industrial Wood Pellets from the US

By M. Seth Ginther | October 31, 2011

Firing industrial wood pellets in traditional coal-fired power plants in Europe is an environmentally sound means of reducing the amount of greenhouse gases produced by electricity generation. Wood pellets are also economical, efficient and available on demand, meaning they can be used to generate dispatchable, firm-capacity power. Empirical analyses of the carbon footprint of wood pellets manufactured from woody biomass harvested and processed in the United States and transported to Europe, including all leakage within the supply chain, manufacturing operations and shipping logistics, demonstrate that electricity produced from wood pellets can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 80 percent when compared to electricity produced from coal. Most recently, a study published by the University of Washington comparing biomass power to coal power shows biomass emits just 4 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted by coal.

Many pellet manufacturing facilities are located in the Southeastern United States. This region is advantaged in a number of ways, most notably the density of raw materials and the well-established forest products and timber industry that, for more than 100 years, has developed this sustainable and rich wood basket.  Wood fiber is abundant in this region, and the growth-to-drain ratio (the amount of new tree growth compared to the amount removed for use in paper mills, sawmills, biomass energy, etc.) has remained greater than one. Data from the USDA Forest Service confirms the quantity of timber growing in the Southeast United States has roughly doubled over the past 60 years, and this trend continues today.

A key driver of this growth has been the development of the robust system of sustainable forestry practices applied throughout the region. Sustainability is not a new concept for U.S. foresters; it is a method of growing and managing timber and fiber resources developed over decades. This ensures that more U.S. forests will exist tomorrow than do today, and that careful and precise silviculture practices preserve and protect the environment, including water and air quality.  This can only be done when a commercial outlet exists for healthy forest products to ensure wildlife and biodiversity, and to help reduce the risk of wildfire, disease and infestation. The use of woody biomass for energy creates an economic value that secures the continued existence of forests, without which the likelihood of conversion of such timberland to nonforest use would be high.

Many U.S. pellet facilities will be Green Gold Label certified to ensure the sustainability of the biomass sourcing. In addition to GGL, there are several other well-respected groups that work to protect, preserve and ensure the health and future of the forest, including the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, Forest Stewardship Council and Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification. Industrial wood pellet manufacturers embrace these stringent third-party standards and certifications, which are achieved through rigorous audit processes and build upon existing U.S. forestry sustainability initiatives such as those in their own operations and supply chains.

As the conversation about energy and the environment grows alongside demand for industrial wood pellets, we must consider the facts about the role these environmentally beneficial fuels play in forest health and diversity, in addition to the substantial improvements in the greenhouse gas emissions profile of energy generation. The United States Industrial Pellet Association was formed in early 2011 to address, among other topics, the importance of environmental sustainability of our industry from forest to furnace. We understand the fundamental need to ensure the continued healthy development of our forests as an integral part of our environment and a way to help meet our current and future energy needs.

Author: M. Seth Ginther
Executive Director
U.S. Industrial Pellet Association
(804) 771-9540