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.
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.