Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.



October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.


October 28 • 8:00 AM

Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.



Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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