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 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

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.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


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.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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