Unlike fossil fuels like coal and oil, wood is widely accepted as a renewable fuel because once a tree is cut another can be immediately planted in its place. When trees are harvested from forests, the logs are sent to sawmills for processing and the trimmings known as biomass – the branches, stems, and leaves – are the biomass used to make energy. One way that forest biomass is converted to energy is by making wood pellets. Like other recyclable wood products, wood pellets have a carbon-neutral effect on the environment.
Wood pellets are made of compacted sawdust that have had the moisture extracted from it. Newer pellet stoves have very low particulate emissions and require electricity for power. Their high density and low moisture content create a high combustion efficiency, making them an effective and clean source of energy. According to the U.S. Industrial Pellet Association, in addition to using byproducts from the processing of wood products, the industry also makes pellets from low grade lumber that has defects, disease, or pest infestation.
Many governments consider wood pellets to be a renewable energy resource. Demand for wood pellets has increased substantially, especially in the European Union. In fact, in December of 2016, Demark converted its largest power station from being powered by coal to being powered by renewable wood pellets. The government believes this change will help the country meet their climate targets.
In recent years, North America has become the primary supplier of wood pellets to the European Union. A report published by the US Forest Service suggests that the Renewable Energy Directive has increased demand for wood pellets in Europe. According to the report, the Directive “requires a 20 percent contribution from bioenergy to the energy use of all EU Member States by 2020.” Moreover, because the EU requirements were extended through 2030, this could have an even greater impact on wood pellet consumption.
The surge in demand for wood pellets in the EU is heavily supplied by the south-eastern United States. According to the U.S. Industrial Pellet Association, the reason North America supplies Europe with its pellets is that North America has significantly more forestland than Europe and our forests are sustainably managed. In the past six years, to meet this demand one Maryland-based biomass company, Enviva, invested $214 million USD and opened five wood pellet mills. According to Biomass magazine, at least four additional plants focused on exports are scheduled to open in the southern United States. By the end of 2017 the industry is expected to create 160 permanent jobs.