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The Final Word by Chuck Swann
US exports of wood pellets are in the news on both sides of the Atlantic. In our February 22 Pulp and Paper Radio International broadcast on the Internet, we featured a Morning Highlight article on the booming exports of wood pellets, especially from the US South. In 2015, overseas shipments of pellets began reaching into the millions of tons. These pellets are being burned primarily in European biomass power plants.

European demand for wood pellets is escalating largely because of national drives to meet targets set out in the European Union's Renewable Energy Directive. Half of the US pellets shipped eastward last year were used to generate electricity in Britain's massive Drax power plant, the UK's largest, which is converting from coal to biomass to reduce carbon emissions and to claim valuable certificates for green electricity. But many Europeans are questioning whether it is really good for the global environment to harvest, process and transport wood halfway around the world to burn in a power plant.

A consortium of non-governmental organizations is arguing that the EU should exclude wood from its list of renewable energy sources. They claim that the harvesting, pelletizing and burning of wood is actually causing a loss of biodiversity and a net increase in carbon emissions. It is relatively easy to modify a coal-burning plant to burn wood instead, and the combustion process is similar. But for this to be worthwhile in environmental terms, the amount of carbon emitted by burning wood pellets must be significantly less per unit of power than what is generated by coal burning.

There is considerable argument going on about the net effects on atmospheric carbon from harvesting, processing, transporting and burning wood. The arguments extend even to wood from forest residues such as sawmill scraps, limbs and twigs, trees that died naturally and trees too misshapen for lumber. Increasingly, power station operators intent on replacing coal with biomass are going to have to prove their case environmentally. Stay tuned!

Chuck Swann is the senior editor of Paperitalo Publications. He can be reached by email at chuck.swann@taii.com.

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