Menus Subscribe Search

Wood Pellets Energizing Europe, Timber Industry

• October 12, 2011 • 4:00 AM

A thriving transatlantic trade in compressed wood scraps is creating New World timber jobs and meeting Old World clean energy requirements.

One strange side effect of the European campaign to slash emissions by 2020 is a boom in North American timber products. A chief at one British Columbia wood-processing firm, Pinnacle Renewable Energy, made a slightly surprising remark to Germany’s Manager Magazin this year: “We’ve grown to a size where we can fill whole cargo ships,” said Leroy Reitsma, Pinnacle’s chief operating officer, “and that makes it profitable to export wood pellets.”

Wood pellets?

Until recently they were a boring product for home stoves, usually found in northern supermarkets next to the Duraflame logs. But Europe’s international energy firms need more and more of them to mix into their coal-burning plants. Wood counts as a (slowly) renewable energy source, and it pollutes less than coal.

“Europe can meet its CO2 emissions goals with help from these overseas resources,” said Fritz Varenholt, chief of the German-owned energy firm Innogy, which opened a pellet plant this year in the U.S. state of Georgia.

By “co-firing” coal with Innogy pellets, the German energy firm RWE expects to save about a million tons of CO2 emissions per year, Varenholt said. The pellet trend should only grow after 2020, since Germany has decided to replace part of its nuclear power capacity with coal plants.

[class name="dont_print_this"]

European Dispatch

EUROPEAN DISPATCH
Michael Scott Moore complements his standing feature in Miller-McCune magazine with frequent posts on the policy challenges and solutions popping up on the other side of the pond.

[/class]

Wood pellets are just compressed sawdust and timber waste. Both Canada and the U.S. have huge surpluses. British Columbia’s forests in particular have been hit so hard by the mountain pine beetle that deadwood for pellets is abundant. Europeans can’t use wood from their own forests because much of the forest is gone or protected, and European land is tight.

Canada sold a million tons of pellets to Europe last year, mostly to the Netherlands, Belgium, and Britain. Pellets, along with lumber sales to China, helped the Canadian forest industry turn an overall profit last year for the first time since 2007, when the American housing market crash caused a critical slump.

Scientists even claim pellets are cleaner than natural gas. “When only the emissions from the burning fuel are analyzed, natural gas appears to be a cleaner option,” chemical and biological engineering professor Xiaotao Bi of the University of British Columbia explained to his campus’ Ingenuity magazine. “But when you factor in the entire life cycle of natural gas … with that of engineered wood pellets, which come from a renewable resource, the pellets are a far better environmental choice. They’re clean, and they’re sustainable.”

Even if you ship overseas in those champion polluters known as cargo ships?A study by researchers in Italy and Canada suggests that the long sea voyage from Vancouver to Stockholm (through the Panama Canal) accounts for 39 percent of the pellets’ “total energy content” once they’re burned in Europe. The “fossil fuel content” of the pellets, given such a long trip, “ranged from 19 percent to 35 percent, depending on whether natural gas or wood residue is used in the drying operation during the wood pellet production stage.”

So RWE’s new wood-pellet plant in Waycross, Ga., is a way to slash the shipping distance and secure a ready supply of cheap, Georgia-grown biomass. (Other German firms have already discovered the American South as a cheap place to build factories.) Innogy is also the largest “green-wood” pellet facility in the world, meaning it uses fresh wood from tree plantations, rather than timber waste.

But isn’t there something wrong here? Why should it take Europeans to buy up North American wood to cut emissions from their coal? North Americans burn coal, too. But the notion of mixing it with cheap timber scraps — even old shipping pallets or Christmas trees can be “pelleted” — hasn’t caught on. The difference has to do with Europe’s emissions goals, which the EU may actually achieve. “Europe is like the black hole for wood pellets,” said Brian Getzelman, who founded the American firm ArborPellet. “They just can’t get enough of them.”

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Michael Scott Moore
Michael Scott Moore was a 2006-2007 Fulbright fellow for journalism in Germany, and The Economist named his surf travelogue, "Sweetness and Blood," a book of the year in 2010. His first novel, "Too Much of Nothing," was published by Carroll & Graf in 2003, and he’s written about politics and travel for The Atlantic Monthly, Slate, the Los Angeles Times, and Spiegel Online in Berlin, where he serves as editor-at-large.

More From Michael Scott Moore

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 2 • 2:00 AM

Introducing the New Issue of ‘Pacific Standard’

The science of self-control, the rise of biblical counseling, why middle school doesn’t have to suck, and more in our September/October 2014 print issue.


September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One third of the United States federal budget for fighting wildfires goes toward one percent of such fires. September/October 2014 big-one-fires-final

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.