Why wood pellets are more harmful than coal?

New research from MIT, Climate Interactive, and UMass Lowell has revealed that substituting coal with wood as a means to generate power could make climate change worse for many decades. Read more…

In a joint study, researchers found that wood pellets burned in European and U.K. power plants, such as a British Drax facility—which has transitioned some of its coal power generation capacity to wood pellets with the support of U.K. government subsidies—actually emit more CO2 per kilowatt hour than that generated by coal.

>>READ MORE: The EU as the world’s largest wood pellet market

The researchers say these increased emissions stem from wood’s less efficient combustion and that the supply chain and processing for biomass are more demanding than those of coal.  To pay off this ‘carbon debt’ through the absorption of CO2 by respiring trees, the researchers estimated that it would take 44 to 104 years of forest growth, depending on the type of tree. 

 John Sterman, MIT Professor and lead researcher for the study, said in a statement:

A molecule of CO2 emitted today has the same impact on the climate whether it comes from coal or biomass. Declaring that biofuels are carbon neutral, as the EU, UK and others have done, erroneously assumes forest regrowth happens quickly and fully offsets the emissions from biofuel production and combustion. One way to address the challenges raised in this study would be to count emissions where they occur, for example, at a power plant, and monitor and count carbon removed from the atmosphere by regrowth on the harvested land.

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Prof. Rooney-Varga, another author of the study, said:

“We’re seeing many of the countries, states, and even institutions leading on climate embracing bioenergy from wood because they think it is ‘carbon neutral.’ Our analysis shows that these good intentions may be leading to outcomes that are bad for the climate: net carbon emissions that are worse than coal for many decades and, potentially, for the rest of this century or more”.

This research adds to the increasing debate over biomass’s place in the EU energy market, with fuel imports for biomass plants primarily coming from the US. 15 January, the USIPA took out sponsored content in POLITICO.eu defending the EU’s use of biomass and the US’ supply of the fuel. The piece presented a face to the industry, introducing Randy: “one of a new generation of lifelong U.S. foresters committed to using sustainable methods to provide Europe with renewable energy.” 

>>READ MORE: Does EU destroy forests in Southeast U.S?

Source:  John D Sterman et al. 2018. Does replacing coal with wood lower CO2 emissions? Dynamic lifecycle analysis of wood bioenergy. Environ. Res. Lett. 13 015007

Author of main photo: Rafal Chudy

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