Plans by Bord na Mona to invest in wood pellet manufacturing in the south-eastern United States to fuel an electricity power plant in the Midlands could devastate forests there, critics have charged.
In a report to the Government, released under the Freedom of Information Act, Bord na Móna forecasted that it would struggle to find enough locally-produced wood and other biomass for its Edenderry, Co. Offaly plant.
In it, the semi-state says that its biomass demand “cannot be met from the existing indigenous supply sources” and calls for a greater supply of pulpwood from State forests.
The looming shortages at the Edenderry plant have been magnified by Bord na Mona’s decision to quit the controversial import of palm kernel shells.
The absence of PKS will leave a large gap in biomass supply. The kernel husks made up over 20 per cent of biomass used at the semi-state’s Edenderry, Co Offaly power station in 2014.
One solution may be to import wood pellets from the US. The company recently outlined plans to invest in US-based wood pellets manufacture to secure a long-term supply of woody biomass.
“Our analysis suggests that the South Eastern states in the United States are probably the optimum location due to the extensive availability of wood in the locality,” the company’s 2016 Annual Report states.
Chief Executive, Mick Quinn also outlined interest to establish a model similar to that used by UK power company Drax at a Joint Oireachtas Committee in June 2015.
Drax, which has a wood pellet plant and shipping terminal in the US southeast, exports roughly 900,000 tonnes of pellets back to the UK every year.
Yet, critics say this strategy has a devastating impact on the region, “ground zero” for the wood pellet industry according to Sasha Stashwick of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
Exports to Europe soared from 530,000 tonnes in 2009 to 3.89 million tonnes in 2014, making the US the world’s leading exporter.
Ms Stashwick, an energy policy analyst, said that Europe’s “tremendous new additional demand” on the US “wood basket” is having a detrimental impact on the local environment.
She also found that woody biomass is far less efficient than fossil fuels like coal.
Fresh cut wood is almost half water by weight, and requires more power to burn off the water before useful energy can be produced.
As such, a lot more wood has to be burnt to produce the same amount of energy as fossil fuels, which Ms Stashwick says is “depleting that forest carbon sink”.
A UK Department of Energy and Climate Change report also found that energy needed to produce electricity from the pellets will be “significantly greater” than for coal by 2020.
EU rules, however, hold that the burning of wood pellets is carbon neutral. The idea is that any carbon lost through felling and burning is recaptured and fixed back in the soil through replanting.
Professor Matthew Hansen finds this concept “kind of ridiculous”. A remote sensing scientist at the University of Maryland, Prof Hansen specialises in land use change mapping.
Using satellite data from 2000-2012, he found logging in the region to be among the “most intensive we see in the world”.
He also said that bottomland hardwood wetland forests, some a century old, are now being targeted as forests on upland well-drained land have been “absolutely hammered”.
A 2016 investigation by Dogwood Alliance, a non-profit working to preserve and restore native forests in the region, also documented clear cutting in wetland forests.
The forests are unique to the southeastern coast, and provide a range of environmental services, such as flood protection. They also act as a habitat to a number of endangered species.
The European Commission confirmed that whole trees are being sourced for pellet exports to the EU. The Commission also documented problems with high greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, and deforestation.
For Ms Stashwick, the report “really validated” concerns held by the NRDC, and brought home the “far-reaching ecological impacts of the trans-Atlantic wood pellet trade”.
“If Ireland becomes a big importer of wood pellets from the Southeast you’ll probably start hearing more from US advocates like us,” she added.
In a statement, Bord na Móna told The Irish Times that developing a reliable, cost effective supply chain will be a “significant challenge” for the company.
The company did not comment on any plans to invest in wood pellet manufacturing while it examines its options for future biomass supply.
Whatever decision is made by Bord na Mona, the US southeast will remain saddled with “carbon debt”, a debt that will take “many decades to repay”, according to Ms Stashwick.
“It’s a really big ship to turn around once you have gone down this road.”
A version of this article appeared in The Irish Times on 6 January 2017