Southeast Biomass Study: Is It Too Late?

A new study of southeastern forests in the U.S. finds that in the long run, burning wood instead of fossil fuels to make electricity can reduce heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but not soon enough to prevent worsening the conditions leading to global climate change. The study also shows that as the industry expands […]

A new study of southeastern forests in the U.S. finds that in the long run, burning wood instead of fossil fuels to make electricity can reduce heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but not soon enough to prevent worsening the conditions leading to global climate change.

The study also shows that as the industry expands in the Southeast, biomass energy will increasingly come from cutting standing trees instead of using wood residues from sawmills and other sources, emphasizing the need to balance forest ecosystem health and related values, such as drinking water and wildlife habitat, with renewable energy objectives.

Based on current trends in using wood for large-scale power plants and exporting fuel pellets to Europe, biomass energy in the Southeast is projected to produce higher levels of atmospheric carbon for 35 to 50 years compared to fossil fuels. After that, biomass will result in significantly lower atmospheric levels as re-growing forests absorb carbon from previous combustion.

The study, Biomass Supply and Carbon Accounting for Southeastern Forests, was conducted by the Biomass Energy Resource Center in partnership with the Forest Guild and Spatial Informatics Group on behalf of the National Wildlife Federation and the Southern Environmental Law Center, and was funded by a grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

The study analyzed 17 existing and 22 proposed biomass facilities in seven states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Researchers developed a new analytical framework that integrates life-cycle carbon accounting with forest growth and management, as well as supply zone specific to the region. The results are specific to biomass electric power in the Southeast, and different regions and technologies will have different effects on atmospheric carbon.

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