British Columbians of a certain age may remember beehive burners. Most towns in B.C. with a sawmill had one. In the late 1990s, the B.C. government began phasing them out, and in their wake a wood pellet industry began to grow to deal with sawmill waste. It seemed like a win-win situation for the environment and forest industry – one that reduced air pollution, addressed the sawmill waste problem and provided a renewable, carbon-neutral energy source that was starting to displace coal. As countries like Japan and the U.K. began displacing coal in thermal power plants with biomass, a market for wood pellets began to grow. About 60 per cent of Europe’s renewable energy is bioenergy, mostly wood biomass. But as the demand for wood pellets has grown over the last two decades, so too have concerns about the wood pellet industry and its impact on forests.
Environmental groups like Stand.earth and the Natural Resources Defense Council in the U.S. have been stepping up campaigns against the industry, questioning the climate calculus that deems biomass to be carbon neutral. Forests are important carbon sinks, after all. If living trees are cut down to produce energy, the carbon neutrality of biomass may be called into question. That’s especially true if more trees are harvested than regrown. Currently, most of the inputs used in B.C. pellet mills come from sawmills and harvest residuals such as slash, which is typically burned anyway. On average, about 80 per cent of the inputs in Drax’s seven wood pellet mills in B.C. is sawmill waste, Drax’s Joe Aquino said. About 20 per cent is harvest residuals – branches, treetops and low-value logs that sawmills don’t want. …Drax insists that it is not harvesting trees in Canada to make wood pellets and that doing so would make no economic sense. Trees are valuable, after all, and wood pellets are at the bottom of the forestry value chain.