North Carolina to be 100 Percent Renewable by 2050, but this Does not Include Wood Fuel

North Carolina to be 100 Percent Renewable by 2050, but This Does Not Include Wood Fuel

The state of North Carolina is making state-wide changes to improve its energy sourcing and environmental impact. The state first rejected the idea that burning wood pellets for fuel qualifies as low-carbon, renewable energy. But it has taken some conflicting actions since.

A few weeks ago, North Carolina governor Roy Cooper released Executive Order 80 regarding “North Carolina’s Commitment to Address Climate Change and Transition to a Clean Energy Economy.” The governor’s EO 80 calls for a 40 percent reduction in statewide greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, compared to 2005 levels. The order also required DEQ to develop a clean energy plan for North Carolina.

In addition to setting goals for renewable energy, DEQ’s 146-page report set a goal to reduce carbon emissions from electric generating power by 70 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The report says the state should be “carbon-neutral” by 2050.

Since EO 80’s issuing, many have proposed forms of energy that the DEQ is in the process of approving or rejecting for the state’s plan for an environmentally-conscious future. The burning of wood pellets as a viable, renewable energy source did not make the cut.

At the end of September this year, in its Clean Energy Plan, North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) deemed burning trees for fuels as not low-carbon or renewable energy.

Currently, the wood pellet industry does not contribute to NC’s energy generation portfolio and does not advance NC’s clean energy economy,” reads DEQ’s portion of the Clean Energy Plan.

However, not long after the issuing of its Clean Energy Plan, DEQ did something puzzling and contradictory: it approved an air permit for the expansion of Enviva, a wood pellet plant in Sampson County.

This act directly goes against what environmental advocates have been saying: states should deny such permits and implement a moratorium on the wood pellet industry in North Carolina until its cumulative impacts are assessed. For an environmental organization that first said burning wood pellets for fuel is not a form of clean energy or low-carbon, this move was not expected.

While Enviva will be allowed to expand, it is supposedly not getting off without some regulation, though. Under a settlement agreement, Enviva has agreed to install additional equipment to control emissions of volatile organic compounds and hazardous air pollutants. The permit requires applications for that control equipment to be submitted within six months.

In response to the confusion the DEQ’s actions have caused over burning wood fuel, DEQ spokeswoman Sharon Martin told Policy Watch that the Clean Energy Plan specifically examined the role of wood pellets in North Carolina’s energy generation. However, the permitting of the facilities is governed by existing state laws, rules and regulations, which are applied in the review of air quality permits.

Still, various environmental groups and researchers have rallied behind the DEQ’s original rejection of burning wood as not eco-friendly, saying that wood-burning plants are detrimental. Policy Watch’s article recounts the following quote and statistics surrounding the general opposition to wood burning fuel sources:

"Industrial forestlands store far less carbon than the native forests they have replaced. On intensively managed timberlands and tree plantations, the amount stored has been reduced by roughly half.”—Dogwood Alliance, an Asheville-based nonprofit that advocates for the protection of forests.

Other groups have called for the halt of pellet-burning energy, too. One report prepared for the alliance by scientists at the Center for Sustainable Economy shows that the logging and pellet industries’ carbon dioxide emissions average 45 million tons every year. This figure accounts for the carbon released during timber harvests, wood decay, the burning of wood, the loss of carbon sinks, and carbon storage in long-lived wood products, such as furniture.

Even the DEQ acknowledges that the wood burning processes are not a sustainable option for energy. As many scientists have noted and the report states, burning wood does release carbon into the atmosphere faster than trees—if left intact—could absorb and sequester carbon dioxide emitted from human-made sources. The report adds, “Biomass energy is carbon-neutral if growing the biomass removes as much CO2 as is emitted into the atmosphere from its combustion."

That is not, however, how the pellet-making process works. The process is actually quite carbon-heavy. Enviva, like other plants, often uses types of trees that, when burned, actually remove some of the valuable “carbon sinks” from the landscape. Trees are carbon sinks because they absorb and store carbon dioxide. Want to learn more about the effects of tree loss? Read on the burning Amazon Rainforest.

In order to obtain pellets, trees need to be cut down and burned. It’s as simple as that.

Trees are brought to the plant and ground into kibble-size pellets. This process emits pollutants into the air, and state air permits regulate these amounts for companies. After this step, the pellets are transported to state ports—again, using carbon-emitting transportation—where they are loaded onto a carbon-emitting ship and transported across the Atlantic Ocean to the United Kingdom. There, in lieu of coal, the UK burns the pellets for to fire electricity-generating power plants; however, this burning also emits carbon dioxide.

While burning wood pellets is not technically an eco-friendly energy source given its carbon footprint, this does not mean it does not have a place in sustainability efforts. Pellet burning falls within a category of energy sourcing called biomass.

Biomass has four general categories: wood and agricultural products, solid waste, landfill gas, and alcohol fuels. And while it holds a small role in many state and national energy efforts, it has room to grow. An Enviva spokesperson admits that North Carolina’s Clean Energy Plan does contradict statements made about biomass, but “biomass should absolutely be a key part of the Plan. It can be utilized effectively to meet state-wide goals for clean energy and emissions reduction by displacing fossil fuels and fortifying carbon stocks on the landscape.”

According to the Policy Watch article and the Enviva spokesperson’s quote, biomass is currently a part of North Carolina’s energy portfolio, and the Clean Energy Plan notes that biomass energy represents two percent of the state’s electricity generation (as displayed on page 19 in figure 1). Biomass has reportedly been a part of the North Carolina Renewable Energy Portfolio since 2005.

But another wrinkle in this debate involves the markets that Enviva caters to: while it does ship much of its pellets overseas, it also serves a handful of North Carolina’s low-income communities. The Policy Watch’s article goes into some detail about the controversies behind these plants and the health hazards they pose to surrounding communities.

And while biomass is a part of North Carolina’s energy plans, and wood pellet burning does have some promising alternatives to coal fuel, scientists say still that calling this form of biomass “renewable” is a matter of semantics—and rhetoric. The DEQ cites a 2018 study where “scientists concluded that the use of wood as fuel is likely to result in net carbon dioxide emissions and may endanger forest biodiversity.”

The Dogwood Alliance worries that if Enviva is allowed to expand, an additional 8,700 acres of North Carolina’s forests will be destroyed each year to meet foreign markets’ demands for biomass, and the state will become the largest exporter of wood pellets in the nation. Whether or not that is a “good” thing is still up for debate.
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