In the past couple of months, environmental groups and several major media outlets have sounded an alarm on pellet production in the Southeast United States. These organizations claim Southeastern pellet production is not environmentally friendly and is rapidly destroying the forests of the Southeast. These criticisms blame the green policies of the EU for intensifying the demand for Southeast pellets.
However, the critiques of these environmental groups jumped the gun and failed to properly examine the long-term effects of pellet production in the Southeast. Current research from the U.S. Forest Service projected that forests in the Southeast would continue expanding in size as far as 2040 because of the increased European demand for wood pellets (Biomass Magazine April 2015).
This study admitted that an, “increased demand for hardwoods leads to an increase in harvest of hardwood,” but the study ultimately concluded the increased demand would, “not exceed the underlying growth in hardwood inventories” (Effect of Policies on Pellet Production and Forests in the U.S. South). The horrifying vision of an empty treeless Southeast illustrated by the major media outlets appears to be an exaggerated claim.
Most importantly, the concerns regarding the Southeastern pellet industry simply do not apply to the Northeastern pellet industry. The business models of the Northeastern and the Southeastern pellet industry are vastly different from each other. There are three huge differences between the pellet industry in Maine and the Southeast that created this discrepancy.
- The first difference is that Maine has a longer history of strong environmental regulation. According to the Center for Research on Sustainable Forests, Maine has over 7 million acres with a green certification from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). Maine has the highest proportion of private lands with a green certification than any state in the country (Center for Research on Sustainable Forests). With these strong regulations, Maine has kept its forest industry sustainable since the 1990s.
- More incredibly, Maine could produceeven more pellets and still maintain sustainability. According to the CentralMaine.com, Maine could harvest four million tons of more wood before reaching maximum sustainable capacity (CentralMaine.com). With all this progress, Maine has not achieved its full potential for wood pellet production! Regulations succeeded in protecting Maine forests from destructive deforestation during the booming paper industry era. These regulations will have no problem protecting Maine forests from the more modest pellet industry.
- The second difference is Maine pellets stay in the United States. The pellets produced in the Southeast are mostly shipped overseas to power huge European industrial plants (Forbes). The Southeast pellet production boom is a direct result of increased demand in the European market (SouthernEnvironment.org). Meanwhile, “almost no Maine pellets hit the European market” according to the Bangor Daily News (Bangor Daily News). Maine has not been a net exporter of wood products (including pellets) since 2006 (Bangor Daily News). Maine’s wood pellet production increased because of the improved viability of the market. More efficient and less expensive boilers like Kedel boilers made this organic growth possible. Exporting wood pellets to Europe is simply not part of Maine’s pellet industry’s business model.
- Finally, because pellets produced in Maine stay in Maine, the pellets are used more efficiently. Southeastern pellets are shipped to Europe for industrial-scale power production, which generally uses the pellets at 30-35% efficiency (RecylingWasteWorld.co.uk). Meanwhile, consumers of Maine pellets are Maine homeowners with pellet boilers. Home pellet boilers convert wood pellets at a significantly more efficient rate. For example, Kedel boilers burn Maine pellets at 88% efficiency (Kedel Boilers). Compared to European industrial facilities, Kedel Boilers covert wood pellets at almost double the efficiency. Ultimately, multiple new outlets argued that Southeast pellet production is not environmentally friendly and will rapidly increase deforestation in the Southeast. Proponents of the pellet industry contradicted these claims by pointing to research that concluded the Southeast pellet industry is sustainable and environmentally friendly. With both sides presenting convincing evidence, the debate over the sustainability of the Southeast pellet industry continues to rage on. One should also consider the alternative of continuing to burn coal in these power plants. As a practical matter, these power plants cannot shut down today or tomorrow, which is the only way to stop emitting emissions. Burning wood pellets at least swaps the use of geologic carbon with carbon that is already in the active carbon cycle.
Fortunately, these critiques on sustainability and the worries of mass deforestation are not being directed towards the Northeast pellet industry. Major media outlets are not criticizing Northeastern pellet production because these criticisms are basically not applicable to Northeastern production. This is a result of Northeast pellet production being dramatically different from the Southeast. Comparing Northeast pellet production to Southeast production is like comparing apples to oranges.
Throughout Maine’s history, Maine has shown an unwavering commitment to sustainability and nothing indicates a change in this tradition. The Maine pellet industry produces pellets that remain in the region and are therefore used efficiently. The criticisms of the Southeast pellet industry simply do not apply to the Maine pellet industry and the pellets used by Kedel Boilers.