Biomass Industry Reveals Plans to Turn U.S. into European Resource Colony

Biomass Industry Reveals Plans to Turn U.S. into European Resource Colony

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A July Biomass Magazine and Pellet Mill Magazine webinar series, “Satisfying Europe's Growing Appetite for American Wood Pellets,” lays out the biomass industry’s disturbing plans to convert North American forests into wood pellets to fuel European biomass incinerators—further depleting U.S. forests, soils, and watersheds, while hastening runaway climate change. 

Tim Portz of BBI International hosted the industry webinar, joined by guest speakers Seth Ginther of the U.S. Industrial Pellet Association, and Dave Tenny of the National Alliance of Forest Owners, a U.S.-based timber industry front group.

In 2012, the European Union (E.U.) burned 4.36 million metric tons of wood pellets for electricity, according to U.S. Industrial Pellet’s Seth Ginther. The U.K.’s portion was 30%, the Netherlands at 24%, Belgium at 16%, Denmark at 9%, and the rest shared by Sweden, Italy, Poland and a few other nations.

The E.U.’s 2012 demands were up significantly from 3.23 million tons in 2011, 2.62 million tons in 2010, and 1.77 million tons in 2009.

Projected E.U. consumption for 2020 ranges from 25-70 million tons per year, though Ginther believes the “true number is 40-50 million” tons.

Once its third boiler is converted from coal to biomass, the U.K.’s Drax Power Station alone would incinerate 6.5-7 million tons of pellets annually, requiring 4,600 square miles of forest every year, an area equivalent to 83% of Connecticut, according to Ginther. The Drax facility alone would consume the equivalent of two-thirds of “Europe’s entire biomass energy consumption in 2010.”

While the U.K. has claimed — and is likely to continue claiming — the lion’s share of wood pellets from overseas, the Netherlands has plans to produce up to 9% of their electricity from biomass, adding up to 6 million tons annually.

Denmark and Belgium are developing more of an appetite as well, with the latter country preparing 80 megawatt, 180 megawatt, and 608 megawatt (co-firing) facilities. Germany is weighing the feasibility of replacing its nuclear reactors with biomass incinerators, while Italy’s demand is mostly for residential heating.

36% of the 4.36 million tons of pellets burned in the E.U. last year were plundered from United States’ forests, which in 2012 surpassed Canada (34%) as the E.U.’s primary forest resource colony, a trend that Ginther expects to continue.

So why all this biomass demand all of a sudden? Recent European Union policy dictates that 20% of their energy be produced by “renewables” by 2020, the broad definition lumping biomass incineration in with solar, wind, tidal and geothermal. Each nation state is left to its own devices to figure out its “renewable” portfolio, and fourteen of them are turning to biomass energy, according to Ginther.

Other components of this perfect storm include U.K. market policy drivers, incentives and tariffs, Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROC), and direct subsidies for biomass energy. Additionally, an increasing carbon price floor “incentivizes biomass” by making coal “uneconomic in the next few years,” said Ginther.

The U.K. takes the biggest bite out of the U.S. wood basket because the majority of its enormous facilities co-fire biomass along with coal, with projections of 200 million tons by 2017 for the island nation.

Since RWE’s Tilbury Power Station — the largest biomass power incinerator in the world — has recently gone under, the projected demand will come from Drax’s conversion of three 660 megawatt units, Eggborough Power which “may” convert four of its 500 megawatt units, IP/Mitsui at Rugeley which “may” convert two 500 megawatt units, and E.ON Ironbridge which plans to “temporarily” convert its 440 megawatt unit.

So how exactly does the E.U. expect to extract this much wood from U.S. forests on top of current demand from the U.S. biomass, timber, and pulp and paper industries? While fast-growing tree plantations, such as genetically engineered eucalyptus, are part of the biomass industry’s future fuel source, wild, natural forests are likely to be the main ingredient in European wood pellets.

Europe’s co-firing biomass incinerators are “old power stations built for burning coal and burning coal is chemically very different from biomass,” according to Almuth Ernsting of Biofuelwatch, based in the U.K. and the U.S. “Burning biomass releases chemicals (alkali salts) that corrode, i.e. ultimately destroy, the boilers. The only type of biomass found to not be too corrosive for those power stations is pellets made from wood from slow growing trees with little bark.”

Why target U.S. forests when there’s an entire world of trees to gobble up? Ginther’s explanation for the arboreal invasion is due to U.S. “sustainable forestry practices” and a “stable political climate.”

Critics contend that the U.S. is chock full of weak industry certification programs that greenwash unsustainable logging practices — including clearcutting and toxic herbicide spraying — such as Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC), Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), and American Tree Farm. The biggest impediment to the wood pellet industry right now, according to Ginther, is a need for “uniform sustainability criteria” because current certification standards are designed for forestry, not energy. Europe is currently figuring out how to “plug that gap,” assured Ginther.

By “stable political climate,” Ginther is likely referring to the many U.S. politicians and government agencies that have shown themselves willing to spend exorbitant sums of taxpayer money to subsidize the biomass industry and other corporate polluters in the name of “clean energy.”

Tim Portz of BBI International focused his presentation on the overseas shipping of wood pellets and the gargantuan Drax Power Station, which in his mind “almost sounds like a Dr. Seuss character.” [the anti-Lorax?] Portz brags that the facility, sited in the heart of the U.K. in the village of Drax, Yorkshire, is so massive you have to back up pretty far to “take in its enormity.”

26,000 tons of pellets per ocean liner set out on a ten day journey across the Atlantic from ports in Waycross and Port of Brunswick, Georgia, arriving at Port of Hull, Port of Grimsby, Port of Tyne, and other U.K. ports, all of which are “being brought into service to feed Drax.”

Drax’s demand alone is “spurring massive investment in production and export capacity in the United States.”

Portz admitted that the facility is “the U.K.’s single largest source of carbon dioxide,” going on to mention Drax’s plan to “drive carbon out of its production profile” by burning more carbon-intensive biomass and using yet-undeveloped carbon capture and storage technology. When referring to carbon capture and storage, Portz vaguely mentioned that they’d sequester the carbon “somewhere,” possibly in depleted oil and gas fields, but “they don’t exactly know.”

Portz also touched upon biomass opponents who “use imagery to shape perception,” referring to the use of photographs — some from Drax’s own website — that show plumes coming out of smokestacks, which give a “negative picture of carbon dioxide.”

In order to dispel Drax’s “critics and doubters,” the company plans to work with “credited bodies” to provide certification and “sustainability standards.”

Portz acknowledged “some wrinkles” in the transportation of biomass, with the “biggest concern” being dust, which they “work hard on controlling.” He alluded to a massive fire that ripped through a storage facility for wood pellets at Port of Tyne in October 2011, the pellets destined for the Drax biomass incinerator. The fire, which took firefighters twelve hours to extinguish, is thought to have been caused by spontaneous combustion following a chemical reaction inside the storage unit.

Another massive fire raged inside wood pellet silos for RWE’s Tilbury Power Station in Essex, in February 2012. RWE claims no single cause can be attributed to the fire, but suspects that smoldering wood pellets triggered the dust fire.

Dave Tenny from the National Alliance of Forest Owners, a mouthpiece for the U.S. timber industry, presented “Forest Bioenergy Markets and the Sustainability of US Forests.” Tenny led off by reciting the dictionary definition of sustainable, “of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged,” never addressing the fact that intensive logging can, has, and will deplete forest ecosystems.

Tenny appeared to confuse the concept of sustainability with the industry term “sustainable yield,” which simply refers to keeping up with demand for lumber while ignoring forest ecosystem services of clean air and water, carbon storage, flooding and erosion control, fish and wildlife habitat, recreation and tourism.

When Tenny brought up a slide about threats to U.S. forests, he admitted he “could talk to you about water, critters, soil,” but then did not. Instead he repeated the customary logging industry threat that if industry isn’t allowed to overexploit and degrade forests, they will sell those lands off for development.

Tenny acknowledged that the “central question is carbon” when it comes to logging for biomass. 800 million metric tons of CO2 is absorbed by U.S. forests every year, 12% of the nations’ entire carbon emissions, said Tenny, “as a result of forest management.” Another way of looking at that statistic would be that U.S. forests absorbed this quantity of carbon despite the logging industry’s forest management. Many studies have demonstrated that the more intensively a forest is logged, the less carbon it will sequester.

In response to a question about why more wood pellets weren’t fueling U.S. biomass incinerators, Ginther explained how most U.S. biomass facilities burn wood chips and proposals for facilities that burn pellets in the U.S. are “much less than we had been projecting a few years ago” because biomass incentives are “not that great” in the Renewable Portfolio Standards for U.S. states. Pellets are “very expensive,” said Ginther, and the energy-intensive process of removing moisture is best suited for long distance transportation, such as to Europe.

450 biomass project have been announced in the U.S. (which would amount to 125 million tons), though only 293 of them pass basic “viability screens,” amounting to 75 million tons, said Tenny.