Oct. 20, 2015 | John Upton 

As the world tries to shift away from fossil fuels, the energy industry is turning to what seems to be an endless supply of renewable energy: wood. In England and across Europe, wood has become the renewable of choice, with forests — many of them in the U.S. — being razed to help feed surging demand. But as this five-month Climate Central investigation reveals, renewable energy doesn’t necessarily mean clean energy. Burning trees as fuel in power plants is heating the atmosphere more quickly than coal.

Climate Central reporter John Upton traveled to England and through the U.S. Southeast to investigate both ends of the global trade in wood pellets, interviewing scientists, politicians, policy makers, activists, workers and industry leaders. Europe has long been viewed as the wellspring of climate action. But the loophole that’s promoting wood burning is so overlooked, he discovered, that it’s unlikely to even be raised during global climate treaty negotiations in Paris this December.

Part 1:  [Exerpts]

The European Accounting Error That’s Warming the Planet.

In England and across Europe, the most popular source of renewable energy is wood. But chopping down trees — many of them in the U.S. — and burning the wood heats the planet more quickly than burning coal. Yet plants like Drax receive financial support to switch from coal to wood. That’s because of an entrenched loophole in the EU’s climate rules.”

That loophole treats electricity generated by burning wood as a “carbon neutral” or “zero emissions” energy source — the same as solar panels or wind turbines. When power plants in major European countries burn wood, the only carbon dioxide pollution they report is from the burning of fossil fuels needed to manufacture and transport the woody fuel. European law assumes climate pollution released directly by burning fuel made from trees doesn’t matter, because it will be re-absorbed by trees that grow to replace them.

The assumption is convenient, but wrong. Climate science has been rejecting it for more than 20 years. It ignores the decades it can take for a replacement forest to grow to be as big as one that was chopped down for energy— or the possibility that it won’t regrow at all. The assumption also ignores the loss of a tree’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide after it gets cut down, pelletized and vaporized.

Read more via: http://reports.climatecentral.org/pulp-fiction/1/


Part 2:  [Exerpts]

The American Trees That Are Electrifying Europe

Scientists and environmentalists agree that wood energy can sometimes help the environment. The main factors that determine whether it could help save the planet — or help destroy it — are the scale of the operation and the source of the wood. Using sawdust and mill leftovers to heat and power a school in a Pacific Northwest timber town may help. Cutting down forests to fuel an international energy market will not.

The U.S. pellet industry quickly grew too big to rely on logging and sawmill waste. The American logging industry’s ups and downs are rooted in construction sector trends — and experts say it wouldn’t be feasible for Europe’s power plants to depend on an undependable flow of its trash wood. “I can’t see the energy industry having its feedstock affected by a housing cycle,” said Robert Abt, a forestry professor at North Carolina State University. “You just can’t build a significant energy sector from picking up the slash from a cyclical lumber industry.”

The wood pellet mills are paying for trees to be cut down — trees that could be used by other industries, or left to grow and absorb carbon dioxide. And the mills are being bankrolled by climate subsidies in Europe, where wood pellets are replacing coal at a growing number of power plants.
Read More via http://reports.climatecentral.org/pulp-fiction/2/


Part 3: [Exerpts]

Wood Burning May Play Big Role In EPA’s New Rules

Burning wood only helps the climate in special circumstances, like when waste is used for energy instead of being burned off in a field, or when trees are planted on barren land to eventually produce fuel.

Wood is a fuel, meaning it must be burned to produce electricity, which releases pollution. Analysis of European data suggests that converting a modern coal plant to run on wood pellets increases carbon dioxide pollution by 15 to 20 percent. And for power plants in Europe and parts of Asia that are burning wood pellets (many of which are being produced in the U.S. — all for export) for electricity, carbon pollution can be even greater, because fuels are needed to produce and transport the pellets.

Read More via http://reports.climatecentral.org/pulp-fiction/3/