How potential changes to European energy policy would affect Georgian businesses – and trees – WABE

The European Union is considering changes to its climate policies that could have a big effect on Georgian trees and businesses.

The EU uses wood pellets made from trees in the southeast to generate electricity and says the practice is carbon neutral. Now this can change that position.

David Boraks, climate reporter at WFAE in Charlotte, has reported on the wood pellet industry. He spoke with WABE about what this possible policy change could mean.

“The United States is Europe’s largest supplier of wood pellets, and the industry is growing rapidly – primarily here in the southeast,” says Boraks. “U.S. wood pellet exports have grown more than 60% since 2016, with sales of just over $1 billion a year.”

It’s a big company in Georgia, home to the largest wood pellet plant in the world, located in Waycross. According to the State Forestry Commission, in 2019 Georgia exported nearly $260 million worth of wood pellets.

“Enviva, which owns the Waycross plant, is the largest US exporter. He is building more factories and says he wants to double his sales in the next five years,” says Boraks.

Wood pellets are made from trees and tree parts left over after logging. The wood is ground up and compressed into small pellets which can then be burned instead of charcoal, he says.

Boraks explains that the wood pellet industry has developed in the South for several reasons: most of the forests here are privately owned and allow logging, unlike in Europe; Southern states subsidize construction of wood pellet plants to support job growth in rural areas; and Europe classifies burning wood pellets as carbon neutral, and governments pay power companies to use pellets instead of coal.

“Trees are certainly renewable, but it can take decades to regrow the forests that are lost to these operations,” he says.

Overall, he says wood pellets are not, in fact, carbon neutral.

“Burning wood pellets emits more carbon than coal,” he says. “And climate researchers say we should also include carbon emissions from the entire wood pellet supply chain – in harvesting, trucking wood pellets to and from ports and their shipment to Europe on diesel-burning ships.”

At the local level, he adds, wood pellet plants are often located in communities of color and in low-income communities. “Factories create jobs, but they also bring dust, noise and truck traffic. So neighborhood leaders and activists pushed back,” he says.

Enviva’s wood pellet plant in Northampton County, North Carolina, pictured at night. The company also operates a factory in Waycross, Georgia, and plans to expand further. (David Boraks/WFAE)

Now the European Parliament is reconsidering its rules on wood pellets. “After years of criticism and lobbying from environmentalists on both sides of the Atlantic,” says Boraks. “The Environment Committee this month approved new limits on the use of timber harvested from primary forests.”

The change will go to another committee and “could be put to a vote by the full European Parliament in September,” he says.

The wood pellet industry is fighting back, says Boraks.

The US Industrial Wood Pellet Association said in a statement that wood pellets are needed “to protect European energy security and to meet ambitious climate goals.”

Enviva declined to comment.

“Industry reviews are optimistic but cautious,” he says. “Meanwhile, Britain, which is the biggest user of wood pellets, is no longer a member of the EU. There is therefore a parallel effort to limit wood pellets. We could hear something by the end of the year.

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