European Power From U.S. Forests: Two New Reports Offer Pathways To Sustainability

European utilities are using trees grown in the United States to make electricity. Well, not the whole tree. But lots of the tree is used to make the little wood pellets that are then shipped across the ocean, mostly to the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Denmark and Belgium. It is these wood pellets that are burned with coal or in stand alone biomass boilers to produce energy. This video explains the journey from forestlands to power plants.

Why is Europe able to make electricity from U.S. trees when domestic utilities are cancelling wood biomass projects? Answer: Europe has a strong renewable energy policy.

The EU Renewable Energy Directive passed in 2009 sets a target for EU member countries to collectively achieve 20% of energy from renewable sources by 2020. Many utilities are increasing the use of biomass as a low-cost means of producing renewable energy. But Europe doesn’t have enough forest or agricultural land to meet the increasing demand. To fill that gap, European utilities are importing wood pellets – a form of chipped and compressed wood – from North America and increasingly from the Southern United States. The growing demand for U.S. wood biomass is raising questions about the sustainability of the country’s forest resources.

Two reports from Environmental Defense Fund, in conjunction with colleagues at Pinchot Institute and University of Toronto, examine economic, environmental and public health impacts from the expanding wood pellet market. European Power from U.S. Forests documents how the EU policy is shaping the transatlantic trade in wood biomass. For the U.S. export market to benefit from the large potential capacity for pellet production, producers in the U.S. will need to meet or exceed EU sustainability standards. Some type of forest management or pellet supply chain is likely to be required.

Pathways to Sustainability evaluates the programs and practices that fall under the EU biomass requirements for wood pellets, concluding that few of the pathways completely meet the standards. EDF proposes a new approach to recognize the various ways landowners and biomass producers on both sides of the Atlantic can meet their environmental objectives.

Sustainability will remain a pivotal issue as EU member countries, the European Commission and various stakeholders seek to harmonize sustainability requirements. European bioenergy companies often view biomass sustainability as the largest unquantified risk in their supply chains. Developing sustainable pathways sooner, rather than later, will reduce economic risk and encourage market development for wood pellets in the U.S. and Europe.

A webinar will be held July 17, 2012 at 12 pm EST. Please join Will McDow (EDF), Brian Kittler (Pinchot Institute) and Jamie Joudrey (University of Toronto) for a discussion of E.U. policies, the growing demand for wood pellet exports and options to meet Europe’s sustainability requirements.

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