December 14, 2016

Are Athens-Area Wood Pellet Plants Clean Energy Producers or Polluters?

Photo Credit: D-Kuru/Wikimedia Commons

Three proposed facilities near Athens that turn trees into fuel for power plants could contribute to climate change, according to environmental groups, but other experts call wood pellets a renewable, cleaner alternative to coal.

The Dogwood Alliance, an Atlanta-based nonprofit dedicated to saving and sustaining forests, is organizing Athens residents against the three facilities. A company called E-Pellets recently acquired the old Louisiana Pacific particle-board factory off U.S. Highway 441; it has secured permits from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division and is awaiting a Jackson County Industrial Development Authority vote on a $110 million bond issue. Another company, Georgia Renewable Power, is building wood-pellet plants in Madison and Franklin counties, although the Comer plant has been delayed for unknown reasons, according to the Madison County Journal.

Since 2013, the wood pellet industry has grown exponentially, with the European Union responsible for the bulk of consumption, seeing it as a green alternative to coal. But according to the Dogwood Alliance and another environmental nonprofit, the Citizens Climate Lobby—which held a forum at the Athens-Clarke County library Nov. 30—companies are clear-cutting Southeastern forests to make wood pellets, and residents who live near processing plants can experience health problems from the plants’ emissions.

“One thing there is no question about is at the site of consumption, when the wood pellets are burned, it is worse for the climate than coal,” said Emily Zucchino, community network manager for the Dogwood Alliance. “There is more carbon released in the atmosphere.”

That’s not quite a fair comparison, said Ben Jackson, a professor at the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. “The issue is kind of confounded by the fact that when you’re using coal, you’re taking a resource out of the ground, and you’re creating CO2 as a result,” he said. “If you’re creating CO2 with trees, that was above ground already, and it’s being recycled back into the trees eventually, so it’s kind of like comparing apples to oranges.”

It’s also important to look at it from a landscape view, instead of site-specific, Jackson said. If you cut down even a whole patch of forest, there are still large amounts of forest around to make up for it. Georgia has 50 percent more forest than in 1960, he said, with 68 percent of the state covered in trees.

A big disagreement is over how long it takes for the forests to regrow, although most evidence points to pellet industries using leftover scraps from timber companies, not clear-cutting for their own purposes. The Dogwood Alliance gives an estimate of 40–60 years. Jackson said that, although woody biomass comes from different types of trees, pine forests grow back in 27–30 years, resembling mature forests after just 12.

“People are saying they’re taking solid trees, but that doesn't make a whole lot of sense,” Jackson said. Landowners can get higher prices for their lumber from companies who are making higher-value products like furniture and buildings. “When you harvest a stand of trees, there’s always residual biomass left over [shavings, limbs, small trees, etc.], and that, for the most part, has been a target material that people have used to gather and use in pellet production,” Jackson said.

Aside from the environmental issues, wood pellet production poses threats to the communities where pellets are made, said Allie Halpert, the Dogwood Alliance’s Athens organizer. Health risks such as cancer, heart attacks, increased childhood asthma attacks, birth defects and strokes have all been linked to emissions from the facilities. “The biomass power plants poison their communities by emitting volatile organic compounds,” Halpert said.

While there are two sides to the argument, and research isn’t far enough along to have a complete understanding of the impact of the wood pellet industry, one thing is pretty clear: “It’s a highly inefficient source of energy,” Zucchino said.

Jackson doesn’t disagree. “Wood pellets are not ever going to supply a huge percentage of the power need of the U.S.,” he said. “They might in a little place like England, where they do a lot of imports. Here in this country, there’s not enough woody biomass to make a huge contribution to our needs. It can be part of it, but it’s not going to be a complete answer.”