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

July 31 • 4:00 PM

Thank You for Your Service: How One Company Sues Soldiers Worldwide

With stores near military bases across the country, the retailer USA Discounters offers easy credit to service members. But when those loans go bad, the company uses the local courts near its Virginia headquarters to file suits by the thousands.


July 31 • 2:00 PM

A New York State of Fracking

Court cases. A governor’s moratorium. Pending health study. A quick guide to the state of fracking in New York.


July 31 • 11:17 AM

How California Could Power Itself Using Nothing but Renewables

We don’t need fossil fuels.


July 31 • 8:00 AM

Should Athletes Train Their Memories?

Sure, but it probably won’t help.


July 31 • 6:00 AM

Universal Basic Income: Something We Can All Agree on?

According to Almaz Zelleke, it’s not a crazy thought.


July 31 • 4:00 AM

Medical Dramas Produce Misinformed, Fatalistic Viewers

New research suggests TV doctor dramas leave viewers with skewed impressions of important health-related topics.


July 30 • 4:00 PM

Still the World’s Top Military Spender

Although declining in real terms, the United States’ military budget remains substantial and a huge drain on our public resources.



July 30 • 2:04 PM

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.


July 30 • 2:00 PM

The (Mostly Awful) Things You Learn After Investigating Unpaid Internships for a Year

Though the intern economy remains opaque, dialogue about the role of interns in the labor force—and protections they deserve—is beginning to take shape.


July 30 • 12:00 PM

Why Coffee Shortages Won’t Change the Price of Your Frappuccino

You’re so loyal to Starbucks—and the company knows it—that your daily serving of caffeine is already marked up beyond the reach of any fluctuations in supply.



July 30 • 10:00 AM

Having Difficult Conversations With Your Children

Why it’s necessary, and how to do it.


July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.


July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.


July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

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