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  • Green groups question benefits of biomass

    Biomass Fuel Granules

    Georgia’s biomass industry is booming, resulting in the shipment of more than a million tons annually of wood pellets to Europe where they’re burned as a greener alternative to coal in power plants. But a nonprofit new to Savannah, the Dogwood Alliance, is raising concerns here that the practice isn’t so environmentally friendly.

    Utility companies in Europe are expanding their use of biomass — plant matter that can be converted to fuel — despite growing scientific doubts about the practice, Dogwood Alliance organizer Rita Frost told an audience of two dozen mostly young Savannahians at a kick-off meeting Tuesday evening at the Coastal Georgia Center.

    The widespread use of biomass could speed up logging and, ironically, increase carbon emissions compared to the coal it’s supposed to replace.

    Georgia Biomass, however, which opened in 2011 and can produce 750,000 tons of pellets a year, uses larger round wood, or log. That practice makes it a bigger concern for its carbon footprint.

    In 2013, the latest year for which data is available, Georgia ranked No.1 1 in the U.S. with USD 128 million in wood pellets exported, a 46% increase over 2012. The top five destinations were the U.K., Belgium, Denmark, Italy and the Netherlands. The European Union adopted the use of biomass as part of 2009 climate and energy plan to fight global warming by reducing its carbon emissions by 20 percent over 1990 levels by 2020.

    But that climate and energy package made some erroneous assumptions about wood pellets, said Derb Carter, director of the Chapel Hill office of the Southern Environmental Law Center. It assumed the pellets would be carbon neutral if trees were replanted.

    Especially worrisome to environmentalists and scientists is the use of slow-growing hardwood forests in pellet making, a practice more prevalent in North Carolina and one in which it takes decades longer to make up in tree growth for all the carbon released in making and burning the pellets. Pine plantations, the norm in Georgia, are soft woods that regrow more quickly, but still take decades.
    SELC is working across the Southeast with the Dogwood Alliance on its biomass campaign, but did not send a representative to the Savannah meeting. Carter was interviewed by phone.

    In promoting the use of pellets, the EU assumed all forests in the U.S. are already managed as sustainably as in more heavily regulated Europe.

    A 2013 report commissioned by SELC and the National Wildlife Federation, “Forestry Bioenergy in the Southeast United States: Implications for Wildlife Habitat and Biodiversity,” looked at Georgia Biomass as a case study. It indicated that the area around the plant hosts sufficient pine plantations to supply its needs without dipping into natural forests. If managed properly, biomass demand could even increase wildlife habitat values within existing pine plantations, the report suggested.

    Source:  Savannah Morning News /Woodbizforum