Is Europe burning America’s forests?

A recent article at Grist.com under this subtitle “biomass backward” charges that “the European Union and its well-intentioned clean energy rules” are the reason for “denuded fields in the South.” Craig Morris, himself a Southerner, says something about the situation certainly is backward. But he says progress will require a deal between the US and the EU.

Wood Pellets are a green heating choice - if sourced locally and sustainably.

Wood Pellets can be a green heating choice – if sourced locally and sustainably. (Photo by Amaza, CC0 1.0)


Way back in 1983, an American aviation engineer named Jerry Whitfield invented the first pellet stove. If you are from certain parts of North America with great heating demand, you may have already heard of the units. Wood pellets had already been produced before, but only for industrial applications. By the time Whitfield came up with the first application for households, there were an estimated 20 pellet plants across North America (see this history of pellets if you can read German).

Such domestic pellet stoves took off in Germany last decade. In most parts of the US and Canada, however, wood pellets are little-known. A few years ago, I was visited by a senator from Minnesota, who had heard that Germany was doing a lot with waste wood, including pellets for domestic heat. She said her state currently simply buries this waste near sawmills.

We visited a local German pellet producer, who complained about competition from Russia, Brazil, and North America. “What started out as a way of turning a waste product into something useful has become big business for these countries,” he explained, “because they discovered that they can produce wood pellets from fresh timber at a lower price than we can produce pellets from wood waste.”

It is a common complaint among pellet producers in Germany, who argue that shipping any kind of biomass across the Atlantic ruins the energy payback. In fact, in this blog a Polish expert once complained about the same situation in his country.

To hear Ben Adler tell the story over at Grist, you would not expect Germans to complain about pellet imports from the US. The picture he paints is one in which the path to ravaged American forests is paved with European environmental policy. In reality, the German pellet sector and I would agree with Adler and the Economist, which called the situation “environmental lunacy.”

To be fair, Adler specifically mentions Drax, the UK’s largest coal power plant – one that also co-fires biomass. The UK and the Netherlands, which lack a community-driven energy transition movement, are mainly switching to renewables the way the United States is – by asking energy corporations to go a little bit renewable.

One outcome is the situation Adler describes: Americans cutting down their forests for the Europeans. Adler overstates the case, however, when he says it is Europe’s fault alone. The EU would be unable to force my home states of Mississippi and Louisiana to export fresh timber even if it tried. The timber is exported voluntarily.

You see, the firms cutting down timber in the US for pellet production (here’s a list) not only include Germany’s RWE and German Pellets along Drax of the UK, but lots of US firms as well. Europeans are not robbing Americans of their natural resources; Americans willingly hand them over.

To understand why, you need look no further than the website of Enviva, which runs a few of the bigger pellet plants in the US. This firm, which “provides woody biomass to industrial-scale customers,” explains in its Q&A that the US simply has inexpensive timber resources and can provide pellets to Europe at a lower price than Europe can serve itself – even after shipping.

Like numerous European onlookers (see our previous post regarding the cofiring of biomass in Poland, for instance), Adler wants the EU to change its policy to somehow limit pellet imports from the US. One proposal (PDF in German) is to have sustainability requirements include transport of the fuel.

In the real world, any remedy would have to be one in line with trade rules. Take the current TTIP talks – the EU would like to categorize Canadian shale oil as “dirty oil,” and both Canada and the US are fighting back fiercely. Why would this be any different with wood pellets?

To fix the problem, we need to recognize the complicity of both the US and the EU. Let’s make a deal – the EU should include transport miles in a strict definition of sustainable biomass in order to rule out trans-Atlantic pellet imports. In return, North America doesn’t sue the EU for protectionism.

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of German Energy Transition. He directs Petite Planète and writes every workday for Renewables International.

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Craig Morris

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of Global Energy Transition. He is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende, and is currently Senior Fellow at the IASS.

3 Comments

  1. Mark Ohe says

    The ideas on how to “fix the problem” the closing paragraph sound very good, but in the meantime the answer the to question posed in the post’s title, “Is Europe burning America’s forests?” is, YES.

  2. Ben Paulos says

    Like all things bioenergy related, this is a complicated issue that raises many questions. Let’s start with what has been left out of the story.

    First, Europe has a renewable ENERGY policy, that covers all energy, not just electricity. In the US, we have only renewable electricity (RPS) and renewable motor fuels (RFS) standards. Germany also has a renewable heat law; with the exception of some New England states, there is no renewable heat policy in the US. It is possible to make renewable heat using wind and solar power, such as by powering ground-source heat pumps. But it is much easier and cheaper to use renewable biomass, especially in the high-efficiency district CHP systems found in Northern Europe.

    Where will Europe get the renewable fuel needed to meet the renewable energy standard and Germany’s renewable heat law? Is there enough “waste wood” in Europe?

    Next part of the story — why is the wood coming from the US? Wouldn’t it be cheaper to rape some third world country? Wood demand is way down in the US right now. The housing finance crisis has resulted in a massive slowdown in new construction, and the shift to electronic media is permanently reducing demand for paper. Southeastern industrial pine plantations have a lot of surplus, so they are selling it to Europe for energy. Should they be using it locally? Of course, but see above, especially for the South, which doesn’t even have renewable power laws, let alone heat.

    Are we better off having Europe’s energy wood come from the US or from some other country? It depends on the ability to impose sustainable management practices. Because Southern pine plantations are on private land, and Southern states don’t like to regulate too much, sustainability is left up to the landowner. But getting the European buyers to insist on better management practices is possible, through EU procurement standards.

    I can’t defend shipping pellets across the Atlantic to burn in power-only, low efficiency converted coal plants. That’s a stupid waste all the way around. I’m not even sure biomass should be used for standalone power, since wind and solar are better substitutes.

    But if Europe is going to aggressively reduce carbon emissions from heat, it should be done in high-efficiency CHP operations, using the most sustainably sourced biomass available. And US pellets could be the easiest way to get there.

    What are the alternatives?

  3. Kent Otho Doering says

    Dear Craig: The Eurosolar and the German Bio-Gas association are holding a joint – energy storage and bio-gas conference in March. (Please google Eurosolar e.v.)

    According to both-there is a potential to cover 200% of current German natural gas consumption needs by bio-gas installations- namely urban sewage sludge and compost bio gas generators, and rural region manure methane digesters- and compost bio-gas generators.
    Bio gas generators – fired in either internal combustion- combined heat power, or fuel cell combined heat power systems. Currently, less than 2.5 % of German farms are equipped with manure methane digesters – but already put out massive amounts of combined heat and power. Unfortunately, these bio-gas producers also produce at night when it is not needed, and do not ramp down during the day when solar is working.
    As Dr. Axel Berg from Eurosolar e.v. pointed out, bio-gas installations not producing at night, and again ramping down during the day when solar is producing, can expand their combined heat power – production by up to 75% that way, in SMART grid coordination. I advisedly note that were all 200.000 German farms mixed operation and dairy and feed lot operations were to be equipped with bio gas
    operations- to be equipped with bio-gas – operating – only 10 to 18 hours a day as back up baseline for solar and wind- it could put another 100 gw of power and 200 gw of heat available.
    See you in Dusseldorf in March for the Eurosolar e.v. Energy Storage and Bio-gas conference.

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