Bye-Bye Biomass: Increasing Exports to Europe

Note: I heard from eastern readers of this blog that they would like more information relevant to the East, so here is one story. It’s nice to have a break from wildfires and associated topics.

A while back, I heard from folks in the forest industry in the southeast that they felt they were facing competition for trees from the European biomass industry. While people in the US may argue that biomass is not really a good substitute for fossil fuels, the fact is that Europe has their own system and their own beliefs about this.

Hence the market. Now, is this a problem? Fossil fuel use is reduced, landowners get money to keep their land in trees instead of real estate development and fragmentation? Sounds like a win-win?

The folks I was talking with raised the question about jobs and value to communities of exporting low value products instead of producing higher value products (hmm.. sounds familiar). The key difference from the West seems to be that these are private lands and private landowners producing the biomass, and hence no opportunities for litigation of the feds. I am sure the universities and/or others have written about these trends.. would appreciate links to such studies so that we can learn more.

Here’s an article from January about Virginia:

The Port of Chesapeake in Virginia has officially entered the biomass shipping business. On Dec. 31, Enviva LP, sent 28,000 metric tons of wood pellets to one of Enviva’s European utility customers aboard the MV Daishin Maru.

The inaugural shipment was the result of a construction process that started in February 2011 and included more than 25 independent contractors. The deep water terminal outside of Norfolk, Va., includes a 157-foot-by-175-foot wood pellet storage dome that can receive, hold or store up to three million tons of woody biomass set for export each year, all while withstanding large-scale hurricanes and earthquakes. Enviva’s new Ahoskie, N.C., pellet mill is currently supplying the Port of Chesapeake shipping site.

As the biomass industry grows and export volumes reach the millions of tons per year, Enviva will need to focus on terminal operations including issues relating to safety, quality, product reliability and product storage, according to John Keppler, chairman and CEO for Enviva. “We expect Enviva’s Port of Chesapeake facility to be a flagship operation, demonstrating excellence in this area and proving our capability to build the sustainable infrastructure necessary to support the tremendous growth that is projected for solid, renewable biomass sources,” he said.

After opening the Ahoskie facility in November 2011, the company also announced plans to build two more facilities, one in North Carolina and one in Virginia, both of which are strategically located to cut transport costs to and from the Port of Chesapeake. The deepwater facility currently employees 14 and Enviva expects that number to double in three years.

11 thoughts on “Bye-Bye Biomass: Increasing Exports to Europe”

  1. It’s called globalization. I live about 50 miles from the largest pellet plant in the world (at Cottondale, FL) and they use about a million tons of pine, and some hardwood, every year, exporting it to Europe. Their purchasing has been a godsend to our local producers and landowners as the market for pulpwood has plummeted with the closure of St Joe Paper Co, a former major buyer. We often ask why, with the emphasis on U.S. energy independence, we’re exporting energy, at a huge transportation cost, that could be used here at home. Totally irrational (some might say insane).

    Locally, environmental activists have successfully opposed building of biomass-fired power plants at Tallahassee, Quincy, and, it appears, Port St. Joe (site of the closed paper plant). this has been done in the name of concerns about health (emissions) and “forest devastation”. Local government’s now are afraid to show any interest in bio-renewables and talk only about energy efficiency and solar.

  2. I wonder if the plants in Europe are designed better, the regulation is different, or these are cultural differences. Would be interested to hear from European readers, students, or I (or others) could volunteer to go to various countries where our chips go, and do interviews..

  3. No fear of biomass plants here in Maine. There are at least 14 facilities, including a new installation at Colby College (home to many “environmental activists.” ) As I posted a few months ago, plans continue to move ahead for a torrefied wood plant at a now idled pulp mill in Millnocket. The mill will turn wood into “biocoal” that will be shipped to power plants in Europe. Hard to imagine the economics that make such an arrangement profitable.

    • Economics.. I have always wondered how it could be cheaper to get furniture from Europe (say IKEA) with their wood (I think) and their labor. Economics indeed is fraught with mystery.

  4. I am a little skeptical of the argument that “landowners get money to keep their land in trees instead of real estate development” because of biomass markets. There are alternative fates for land other than housing and development.

    Subdivisions and development are often used as a scary threat to justify resource extraction,
    but it’s often a red herring. A lot of forest land is too remote, too wet, too dry, too steep, too buggy, or otherwise unsuitable for development. In which case, the alternative to biomass extraction might be to let the forest grow and build up a larger store of carbon, which might be better for the climate.

    Also, biomass by-itself is rarely economically viable. Its almost always associated with other economic activities (e.g., commercial logging) that have significant carbon consequences.

    It’s even possible that low density housing development could provide greater habitat diversity than short-rotation forest monocrops.

  5. The only thing keeping land in Florida from being developed is the current recession. Real estate development isn’t much of an option right now.

    The threat of subdivision is often used to justify grazing on public lands. I agree that in many places this is a red herring given the current state of the economy. We don’t talk about it much here, but adverse effects from grazing on federal lands make any negative consequences of present day logging look trivial in comparison.

    Woody biomass utilization along with overstory harvest seems to have positive carbon consequences. Wood is converted to building materials that lock up carbon for a long time and paper which can also sequester carbon long term if recycled. The waste is used to produce energy instead of burning fossil fuels.

    Low density housing is worse for habitat diversity than high density housing coupled with larger protected areas and tends to favor habitat generalists such as raccoons and whiteails– species we don’t need more of.

  6. Last September the Scientific Committee of the EU’s European Environment Agency (EEA) issued a report “Opinion of the EEA Scientific Committee on Greenhouse Gas Accounting in Relation to Bioenergy.” It points out the fallacy of EU policy (a policies of individual EU nations) that have led to the growing import of biomass from elsewhere, mainly the US and Canada at present. The fallacy is the assumption that biomass for energy is necessarily carbon neutral, and explains the fallacy.

    The problem is that the deep cuts in carbon emissions that the EU has planned are based on the assumption of carbon neutrality from biomass. Consideration of what to do, since the issuance of the report, is still in process. By rights, because the climate matters, we should see a decline in the export of biomass from the US (as well as a decline in use here).

    You can find the EEA Scientific Committee’s report here:

    • Anti-biomass folks always disregard the effects of careful forest management, and pretend that Land Use Changes caused by wildfires are not an issue in overstocked stands. They also assume that clearcutting is the preferred method of acquiring biomass materials. Thick brush can never replace the carbon sequestration of uneven-aged active forest management. On Federal lands, biomass is merely a by-product of good forest management. Sadly, here in California, biomass doesn’t currently pay its way of the woods by itself. Taking small diameter sawlogs can help the economics of biomass but, some stands don’t have enough excess trees to harvest. Maybe a subsidy for biomass in young stands could help get the work done? It seems that the fear about biomass is clearcutting but, that isn’t going to happen, here in California National Forests.

      ALL forms of energy have climate impacts, and even solar power has some negative social impacts.

  7. Larry H.: I’m in agreement with you on this. The problem with transporting forest biomass more than a few miles is because of the resulting expense of the energy that is created. Obviously (to most people), there are advantages to maintaining cleaner air standards by burning this stuff in a stove or as fuel for an electric generator rather than going up in smoke in a wildfire or (for those fixated on CO2) rotting in place.

    Rather than address the economic issue via subsidies, though, I would be more in favor of much longer term, landscape scale forest and grassland restoration projects so that more valuable materials and services can be added to the mix during contract negotiations (I hate low bid work). That way the overhead simply becomes another cost of doing business, and can be credited with creating actual tax-generating jobs rather than being paid for by taxpayers.

    • As it is now, here in California, the logging slash gets piled in the landing, then burned in the fall. Many Co-Gen plants are located in the flatlands, to take advantage of California agricultural waste. With fuel costs so high, it doesn’t make economic sense to use that biomass. My idea is to have a network of strategically-placed collection sites, which have access to the grid, and to have mobile biomass burners rotate through the system. Burners could be subject to clean air days, while wildfires are not. Biomass would be allowed to dry out significantly, for cleanest burning. Power could be generated on-demand, especially during peak hours, in areas which might have shortfalls in electricity.


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