Pellets Hit the Right Notes as Fossil Fuel Replacement

The notion of U.S. forests being clear-cut exclusively for wood pellets is demonstrably false. What is true is that demand for wood pellets is growing, and this is creating new jobs in forestry, manufacturing and shipping.
By Seth Ginther | December 23, 2013

For decades, we have been seeking alternatives to fossil fuels due to the negative effects of coal and petroleum on the environment. Despite these concerns, utilities have been slow to adopt alternative energies due to concerns about cost, capacity and reliability. There is a viable alternative: industrial wood pellets. 

To an impartial observer, pellets hit all the right notes. They are produced from low-quality wood fiber, including forestry byproducts that would otherwise go to waste, and release up to 90 percent less carbon than coal. Pellets emit fewer heavy metals and other pollutants into the air we breathe. Yet, a vocal minority is not satisfied with the pace of progress. Incapable of offering viable solutions, they criticize wood pellets by making claims that are based on a fundamental misrepresentation of the facts about how and where producers obtain wood fiber. 

In 2010, dozens of respected scientists raised concerns about these misleading arguments in a letter to Congress saying the extremists’ claims could encourage utilities to stick with fossil fuels instead of switching to carbon-beneficial wood pellets. Why is that a big deal? Basic science. “The carbon dioxide released from the combustion or decay of woody biomass is part of the global cycle of biogenic carbon and does not increase the amount of carbon in circulation,” the scientists wrote. “In contrast, carbon dioxide released from fossil fuels increases the amount of carbon in the cycle.”

The myth that forests are being clear-cut at the direction of pellet producers is another common accusation. Wood pellets are not the cause of this practice. We work with our members and landowners to promote sustainable harvesting and management practices. 

All the while, increased demand for wood fiber from pellet producers is stimulating the U.S. forestry industry, a vital part of the economy that has been suffering during the Great Recession. Landowners now have powerful incentives to grow new trees and ignore offers to convert their land to other uses.

Research shows that young trees absorb carbon at a faster rate than older trees. The practice of rotational harvesting means there is a continual cycle of new growth. Additionally, trees tend to grow faster in the southeastern United States, meaning that we realize the benefits from these carbon powerhouses much faster.

The growing demand for industrial wood pellets is also helping Europeans achieve their ambitious climate-change goals. As a number of utilities have learned, it is relatively inexpensive to convert existing coal furnaces to use industrial wood pellets. This innovation decreases the reliance on coal and reduces carbon emissions without incurring the massive capital costs accompanying new plant construction. This benefits everyone: fewer emissions, more jobs, stronger forests, weaker demand for fossil fuels.

The United States leads the world in sustainable forest practices. A comprehensive framework of laws, regulations, programs and practices was developed over decades and adapted to local conditions. As a result, the number of trees per acre has increased in all regions for more than 50 years, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The sheer economics of forestry favors the growth of large trees to produce high-value products including lumber for homes or furniture. The fiber used for bioenergy is a mere byproduct of those higher value product industries. 

Pellet producers rely on low-cost, low-quality fiber. We use parts of trees that others either leave behind or cannot sell into the pulp, paper or lumber markets. The notion of U.S. forests being clear-cut exclusively for wood pellets is demonstrably false. What is true is that demand for wood pellets is growing, and this is creating new jobs in forestry, manufacturing and shipping. The forestry industry is responsible for adding billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs to the U.S. economy. As the wood pellet industry grows, so does its impact on local job markets and state economies.

The increased demand for wood pellets is barely a blip in relation to the overall forest products industry. In a recent letter to U.K. regulators, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal noted “less than one-tenth of 1 percent of southern U.S. forest inventory would be affected” if European demand meets projections through 2020.

The bottom line? Industrial wood pellets are part of the solution. Don’t believe those who claim otherwise. America’s forests are growing, have been for decades and will continue to do so far into the future.

Author: Seth Ginther
Executive Director
U.S. Industrial Pellet Association
[email protected]