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Wood pellets

Pellet power: Could biomass become a carbon-neutral fuel for heat and electricity?

Note: This story is part of a special issue of The Warnell Log focused on carbon.

To best understand how woody biomass, such as wood pellets, can become a sustainable energy solution, you need to consider your perspective.

As small trees and other woody debris are harvested, other trees are growing across the landscape. So, argues Warnell associate professor Puneet Dwivedi, it’s not that a tree that was cut to produce pellets would take another 10 years to grow back, but more accurately that across the landscape, other small trees are growing to replace what was cut.

This landscape-level view helps create a more accurate picture of woody biomass, which is often harvested and produced into wood pellets in the U.S. South and then exported to Europe and Asia. Since 2012, wood pellet exports have increased 498%, according to the USDA, with most going to the United Kingdom to meet the country’s climate goals.

“When they go to Europe, they crush it to make powder and burn it in their boilers—the same ones that were used to burn coal, but coal is gone and replaced by wood pellets,” said Dwivedi, who has been studying biomass-derived energy for a decade. “All the wood pellets we produce here, they go somewhere else to make sure others are meeting their climate projections.”

But regardless of where the pellets end up, said Dwivedi, they are part of a continuous cycle in forestry that represents regrowth year over year. His research investigates the larger trends in the biomass market, the role it plays in energy production and independence, and how woody biomass can help reduce CO2 emissions.

Even shipping woody biomass to other countries can still be more efficient than burning coal. His analysis has found woody biomass from the U.S. Southeast can reduce carbon intensity by at least 77% compared with coal if it’s burned within the country, and between 49% and 72% if it’s shipped abroad.

At the same time, as demand for woody biomass increases, Dwivedi’s research shows that forestland increases. By giving landowners more options for wood products, it helps forests remain forests. “Wood biomass strengthens the market for forestry by providing additional income to landowners who engage in sustainable forestry practices,” he added.



Associate Professor, Sustainability Sciences

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