Report: Electricity from wood pellets yields quick carbon savings

By Anna Simet | September 24, 2013

A new report prepared by the European Biomass Association, BC Bioenergy Network, U.S. Industrial Wood Pellet Association and Wood Pellet Association of Canada says wood pellets imported to Europe from the Southeast U.S. and British Columbia, Canada, for electricity production have immediate or very rapid contribution to climate change mitigation.

The report has multiple objectives, including to inform stakeholders about current biomass sourcing practices, to highlight the key role of Sustainable Forest Management in forest-based biomass energy production, to outline commercial realities of SFM decision making in the context of healthy forests used for multiple purposes, and to critically examine the carbon dynamics of forests from which biomass fuels are obtained.

Initially, the report explores biomass potential and forestry practices in the Southeast and British Columbia, landowner incentives and forest ownership. It points out that forests in the Southeast are fundamentally different from those of B.C., not only because of location, geography and climate, but also due to historic land use, land ownership patterns—Canadian forests are mostly publically owned, while most U.S. forests are privately owned—and differences in management strategy.

Both, however, have strict legal and regulatory frameworks governing forest operations, ensuring responsible harvesting and restoration of harvested sites. Regulatory framework and forest certification specific to each region are discussed separately in the report.

Moving on to previous studies that have examined the carbon implications of energy production from forest biomass, the report compares wide-ranging conclusions of previous studies, including the Manomet Study. “Analysis of such studies reveals that outcomes are very heavily dependent upon underlying assumptions—assumptions that are sometimes unrealistic,” it says. “There are fundamental flaws in prominent studies that have found forest-based bioenergy to be associated with long-term carbon deficits and long carbon repayment periods. Specifically, those studies are generally based on modeling assumptions that do not correspond with current and expected production and are therefore not representative of actual industry practices.”

The report admits that it is possible to define a scenario wherein significant reductions of forest carbon stocks could occur that would lead to a long time lag before recovery of lost carbon. “This might occur, for example, if a natural forest with high carbon stocks were harvested entirely for bioenergy. But such a scenario has no relation to reality. When modeling is based on realistic assumptions and scenarios, and results are interpreted correctly, models can give useful information for policy makers who wish to avoid ineffective policy choices.”

After discussing key methodological choices and scenario assumptions that impact the outcome of any temporal carbon analysis, the report presents modeling results of the temporal GHG emission savings of bioenergy scenarios for the Southeast and British Columbia. Results presented are taken from model calculations carried out by MWH Consultants using actual industry data for supply chains delivering wood pellets to Europe for use in cofiring.

“A central finding of this study is that when realistic assumptions are applied, production of energy from woody biomass results in carbon debt and foregone sequestration that are very small compared to the substantial carbon savings that are achieved over time,” the report concludes. “Further, there is a critical difference between a small and temporary “carbon debt,” when one might exist, and the permanent fossil carbon emissions savings achieved by use of bioenergy rather than fossil fuels.”

Access a copy of “Forest Sustainability and Carbon Balance of EU Importation of North American Forest Biomass for Bioenergy Production” here.