HAMLET – The use of wood as a fuel for fire and energy has been around since the beginning of time. Recently, however, a group of world renowned scientists voiced their concerns over the potential new direction and environmental hazards of this practice regarding the new Enviva plant in Hamlet.
Dr. William H. Schlesinger recently discussed a letter that he and over 100 scientists wrote to North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper. The letter outlined their concerns with the pellet plants recently built in North Carolina and Virginia, as well as the new plant currently planned for Richmond County.
These plants are owned and operated by Enviva, the world’s largest producer of wood pellets. The pellets are manufactured from wood and then transported to port for loading onto ships to be delivered to Europe. Once in Europe the pellets are delivered to and used by power plants to generate electricity.
According to the scientist’s letter, the wood needed to feed Enviva’s plants will require approximately 135 acres of forest each day. The letter to the governor further suggested, “Enviva sources whole trees from primarily native hardwood forests.”
“I’ll be the first to say if you have residual waste from a logging operation, say you are making saw logs and cutting the limbs off, using that material doesn’t bother me at all,” Schlesinger said. “We want to point out that if you are concerned about climate change and rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, burning firewood in chip form is not a particularly effective solution to that issue.
“The EPA ought to realize that, and the European Union that is promoting the use of wood chips in Europe ought to realize that,” he continued. “It is likely to increase emissions of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in the short term.”
As for the deforestation concern, Schlesinger noted, “You are in a situation where a lot of nice, mature North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia forests might get sacrificed for a not particularly effective goal.”
Enviva states on its website it sources from, “low grade wood fiber, tops and limbs, in-woods chips, commercial thinning operations and mill wastes and residues.”
When asked what alternatives the scientists suggest for carbon reduction, Dr. Schlesinger said, “We are kind of purists in that regard. We see a lot of potential for offshore wind power and solar power. Solar has been used in a number of southeastern states, but it probably ought to be promoted in a more widespread manner. These are the better forms of renewal energy to focus on.”
Studies have been completed on the economic viability of the pellet plants if the European Government subsidies were not present. According to the report An Analysis of UK Biomass Power Policy, US South Pellet Production and Impacts on Wood Fiber Markets, “without a subsidy, UK utilities would lose money (i.e., not break even) if they used pellets as a fuel source to generate electricity. The loss would come to about $26 per short ton of stumpage even before the cost of the wood is factored in.”
These subsidies are present currently as part of the 2020 goals set forth in 2009. The 2020 package is a set of binding legislation aimed to ensure the European Union meets some specific climate and energy targets by 2020. There are three key targets: a 20 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions (from 1990 levels), 20 percent of European Union energy from renewables and a 20 percent improvement in energy efficiency. The targets were set in 2007 and enacted into legislation in 2009.
It is clear that Europe has its sights set on the future of significantly reducing carbon impact.
On the European Commission’s website, plans for the future are outlined as follows: “Reinventing our carbon intensive infrastructures is critical if we are to meet our EU and global climate change objectives. Achieving emissions cuts of 80-95 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 requires a process of ‘decarbonising’ the economy. For this to materialize, new and innovative low-carbon technologies will have to be developed and deployed.
“New and innovative low carbon technologies help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create new employment and growth,” the website continued. “Europe is a leading player in the area of low carbon technologies and we are maintaining our leading position with a range of policy initiatives.”
While there is significant debate concerning the environmental pros and cons of the wood pellet industry, the Enviva Plant coming to Richmond County has been looked upon favorably by many. The plant brings 80 direct jobs with wages 23 percent above the current county average, as well as other employment opportunities for local loggers and truck drivers. In a county that has suffered for years from the fallout of textile jobs vanishing and moving offshore, new industry and the associated tax base can be viewed as positive economic news.
Enviva expects to produce 600,000 metric tons of wood pellets per year of finished product at the local facility and currently plans to be operating the Hamlet plant by the first quarter of 2019.
Enviva representatives were contacted regarding this issue, but did not return a comment at the time of this publication.