Wood Pellets

Pine trees in Chapel Hill, forest,
Laura Candler

New research from N.C. State suggests harvesting wood debris after logging doesn't have a major impact on small animal populations.

Wood pellets made from scraps left behind after clear-cutting are increasingly in demand as biomass, a renewable energy source to fuel power plants in Europe and parts of the United States.

Image of wood pellets, which are causing an environmental controversy in North Carolina. Though the energy source is carbon neutral in theory, that's not always true in practice.
Andrew_Writer / Flickr Creative Commons

The wood pellet industry is booming in North Carolina, thanks in part to high demand from Europe. Power plants burn the wood product to create energy, but wood pellet companies are cutting down trees at a higher rate than anticipated, raising questions about whether the practice really is carbon neutral.

Enviva
Dave DeWitt

Enviva, the embattled wood-pellet manufacturer, has announced a $5 million conservation program designed to save some of North Carolina’s environmentally sensitive forests.

Enviva has been under fire from critics for using whole hardwood trees to make the majority of the wood pellets it produces, instead of wood waste. At its two plants in North Carolina, more than 85 percent of the wood comes from hardwood trees.

Dave DeWitt

Trucks carrying long logs stream into the wood pellet plant on the edge of Ahoskie all day, every day. The facility, owned by a company called Enviva, was an abandoned saw mill just five years ago. Now, it towers over the adjacent Wal-Mart and Hardees, spewing white smoke.

Along the fence that encircles the plant, logs are stacked 40-feet high. Longleaf pine, southern red oak, white ash - pretty much every tree species that grows in the southeast could be used to make wood pellets.

Wood Pellets
Credit: Wikimedia

  The European Union recently set an aggressive goal for 20 percent of its energy to come from renewable sources by 2020. They turned to the American South as the primary supplier of wood pellets, a renewable alternative to coal. But some environmentalists claim pellets are not a viable carbon-neutral resource and the pellet industry is fostering environmentally hazardous logging practices.

Wetlands in eastern North Carolina.
Gary Dincher / Flickr Creative Commons

Environmental groups say a wood pellet mill in eastern North Carolina is threatening sensitive forests. 

A report and series of maps from the Natural Resources Defense Council and Dogwood Alliance says the company Enviva is clear-cutting wetland forests for wood near its facility in Ahoskie. 

Enviva breaks down wood material to pellets and sells them to European countries, which burn them to generate electricity.  The groups say Enviva is using whole trees in addition to tree tops or limbs.