Dig Baton Rouge

Southern forests for British electricity

By Quinn Welsch
@quinnwelsch

Louisiana may be a booming market for petroleum, but it’s also becoming a booming market for wood pellets, a new energy source that is attracting some controversy.

Converting Southern forests into wood pellets, a byproduct of timber, is becoming a popular alternative to coal for Europeans. The South is already the largest manufacturer and exporter of wood pellets for electricity in the world, according to the Dogwood Alliance, a North Carolina-based environmental organization. By 2016, the organization estimates the U.S. will export approximately 6 million tons of the pellets overseas, many of which will come from Louisiana.

The demand for wood pellets is driven primarily by U.K. energy company Drax, a very visible presence in the Port of Greater Baton Rouge with its $30 million pellet storage domes, visible from downtown. From Baton Rouge to London, Drax is supplying power to the U.K. using the wood from north Louisiana’s forests

Is this sustainable?

Drax says yes, as does the European Union, under whose guidelines the company falls. The EU considers woody biomass a sustainable alternative fuel because it uses the debris from forests such as sawdust, branches, and diseased trees; forests can be regrown, and because woody biomass creates less carbon emissions than coal (which isn’t saying much). In fact, wood pellets are a vital component to the EUs climate change goals for 2020.

However, the Dogwood Alliance aims to regulate the harvest of Southern forests more strictly through its campaign Our Forests Aren’t Fuel, and has gathered a following of Baton Rouge locals.

“It’s like ethanol,” said Katya English, the Dogwood Alliance’s Baton Rouge organizer, pointing to the biofuel of yesteryear that was ruled unsustainable by the United Nations. “It seems like a good solution in the grand scale, but it’s not.”

Not much is known about the type of wood that is being used, how much is being harvested or what the long-term effects of wood pellets are, English said. The wood harvesting companies say they are only using the wood debris, such as the remnants of logging operations, but it’s hard to tell, she said.

“There’s no way to delineate whole trees from [wood] residue when it’s a pellet,” she said.

The U.K.’s own report on the lifecycle of North American biomass acknowledges that the effects of wood biomass on climate change depend on where the wood is coming from and what stage it’s at in its lifecycle. For instance, the net effect of converting a whole tree into wood pellets could be worse than burning coal, as opposed to forest residues (i.e. branches).

Drax’s own report shows a sharp reduction in its carbon emissions as of 2014 after an annual supply of more than 4 million tons of biomass, 2.38 million tons of which came from the U.S. The company also reported that the rate of growth outpaced the rate of harvest in forests in the South.

Using renewable resources is smart, but not if it’ left self-regulated, English said. The Dogwood Alliance is asking Louisianans and Southerners to petition the EU to regulate the harvesting of Southern forests more strictly.

One of the biggest priorities for the Dogwood Alliance right now is education, English said. Many people don’t know that Baton Rouge is a last stop for wood pellets to the U.K. – or even what wood pellets are, for that matter.

Jeff Crawford, an LSU graduate student studying Louisiana’s lumber industry sees the effort as somewhat futile, given Louisiana’s conservative politics. Yet, he’s holding on to hope.

“You might not stop an industry,” Crawford said, “but if this helps implant this type of thinking in the area, I’ll take that as a win.”

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