Sourcing of wood pellets in US could destroy forests, say critics

Bord na Móna struggling to source locally produced biomass fuel for Edenderry plant

Wood pellets (above) being processed. Exports to Europe soared from 530,000 tonnes in 2009 to 3.89 million tonnes in 2014, making the US the world’s leading exporter of the biomass fuel. File photograph: Getty Images

Wood pellets (above) being processed. Exports to Europe soared from 530,000 tonnes in 2009 to 3.89 million tonnes in 2014, making the US the world’s leading exporter of the biomass fuel. File photograph: Getty Images

 

Plans by Bord na Móna to import hundreds of thousands of tonnes of wood pellets from the southeast of the United States to fuel an electricity power plant in the midlands could devastate forests there, critics say.

In a report to the Government released under the Freedom of Information Act, Bord na Móna forecast it would struggle to find enough locally produced wood and other biomass for its plant in Edenderry, Co Offaly.

In the document, written in 2013, the semi-State said its biomass needs “cannot be met from the existing indigenous supply sources” and calls for a greater supply of pulpwood from State-owned forests.

The looming shortages at the Edenderry plant have been magnified by Bord na Móna’s decision to quit the controversial import of palm kernel shells from Southeast Asia, which covered a fifth of Edenderry’s needs two years ago.

The company now intends to invest in a facility that produces the pellets and subsequently import them to Ireland.

“Our analysis suggests that the southeastern states in the United States are probably the optimum location due to the extensive availability of wood in the locality,” the company’s 2016 annual report states.

Devastating impact

Bord na Móna chief executive Mick Quinn told an Oireachtas committee in June 2015 that it was interested in copying energy company Drax, which imports nearly a million tonnes of pellets a year from its plants in the US to burn in a UK power plant.

However, this strategy by energy companies has had a devastating impact on forests in the southeastern US, according to Sasha Stashwick of Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC), an environmental protection campaign group.

Exports to Europe soared from 530,000 tonnes in 2009 to 3.89 million tonnes in 2014, making the US the world’s leading exporter. Ms Stashwick, an energy policy analyst, said the “tremendous new additional demand” is not sustainable.

Woody biomass is far less efficient than fossil fuels such as coal, she argued. Fresh cut wood is almost half water by weight, and requires more power to burn off the water before useful energy can be produced.

A UK department of energy and climate change report has found that energy needed to produce electricity from wood pellets will be “significantly greater” than for coal by 2020. However, the EU finds that burning wood pellets is carbon-neutral.

The idea is that carbon lost through felling and burning is recaptured and put back in the soil through replanting. However, Prof Matthew Hansen of the University of Maryland argues that this concept is “kind of ridiculous”.

Satellite data

Using satellite data, he found logging in the region to be among the “most intensive” in the world, with hardwood wetland forests – unique to the region – now being targeted.

A 2016 investigation by the Dogwood Alliance, a non-profit working to preserve and restore native forests in the United States, has documented the clear cutting of wetland forests, which are unique to the region.

The report “really validated” the NRDC’s concerns and has brought home the “far-reaching ecological impacts of the transatlantic wood pellet trade”, said Ms Stashwick: “If Ireland becomes a big importer. . . you’ll probably start hearing more from US advocates like us.”

Bord na Móna told The Irish Times it would not make any comment as the company is exploring options to find a “reliable and cost-effective supply chain” for its biomass imports.