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Synthesis manuscript for an Ecology & Society Special Feature on Telecoupling: A New Frontier for Global Sustainability

Abstract: European demand for renewable energy resources has led to rapidly increasing transatlantic exports of wood pellets from the southeastern United States (SE US) since 2009. Disagreements have arisen over the global greenhouse gas reductions associated with replacing coal with wood, and groups on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean have raised concerns that increasing biomass exports might negatively affect SE US forests and the ecosystem services they provide. We use the telecoupling framework to test assertions that the intended benefits of the wood pellet trade for Europe might be offset by negative consequences in the SE US. Through a review of current literature and available data sets, we characterize the observed and potential changes in the environmental, social, and economic components of the sending and receiving regions to assess the overall sustainability of this renewable energy system. We conclude that the observed transatlantic wood pellet trade is an example of a mutually beneficial telecoupled system with the potential to provide environmental and socioeconomic benefits in both the SE US and Europe despite some negative effects on the coal industry. We recommend continued monitoring of this telecoupled system to quantify the environmental, social, and economic interactions and effects in the sending, receiving, and spillover systems over time so that evidence-based policy decisions can be made with regard to the sustainability of this renewable energy pathway.

Citation: Parish, E. S., A. J. Herzberger, C. C. Phifer and V. H. Dale. 2018. Transatlantic wood pellet trade demonstrates telecoupled benefits. Ecology and Society 23 (1):28. [online] URL:https://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol23/iss1/art28/

Phone
Publication Year
Project Title
Bioenergy Sustainability: How to Define and Measure it
Email
parishes@ornl.gov
DOI
doi.org/10.5751/ES-09878-230128
Contact Person
Esther S. Parish
Contact Organization
Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Bioenergy Category
Author
Esther Parish, Environmental Sciences Division, Oak Ridge National Laboratory , Anna Herzeberger, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, Michigan State University , Colin Phifer, School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science, Michigan Technological University , Virginia Dale, Environmental Sciences Division, Oak Ridge National Laboratory
WBS Project Number
4.2.2.40
Funded from the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Bioenergy Technologies Office.

Abstract
Exports of woody pellets from the southeastern United States (US) for European power plants have expanded since 2009, leading to concerns about major negative environmental effects. US exports of wood pellets have grown from essentially nothing in 2008 to 4.6 million metric tons in 2015, with 99% of US pellets being shipped to Europe. To examine effects of this recent expansion of the pellet industry on forest conditions, we use US Department of Agriculture Forest Service (USFS) Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) annual survey data for 2002–2014 to analyze changes in timberland trends since 2009 for two fuelsheds supplying pellets to the ports of Chesapeake, Virginia, and Savannah, Georgia. This analysis reveals that the Chesapeake fuelshed had significant increases in acreage of large trees and harvestable carbon after 2009. Furthermore, the timberland volume within plantations increased in the Chesapeake fuelshed after 2009. The Savannah fuelshed had significant increases in volume, areas with large trees, and all carbon pools after 2008. Increases in carbon in live trees for the Chesapeake fuelshed and all carbon pools for the Savannah fuelshed for the years before and after 2009 provide empirical support to prior estimates that production of wood-based pellets in the southeast US can enhance greenhouse gas sequestration. Both fuelsheds retained more naturally regenerating stands than plantations; however the number of standing dead trees increased within naturally regenerating stands and declined within plantations (but only significantly for the Savannah fuelshed). While the decrease in the number of standing dead trees per hectare for the Savannah fuelshed plantations after 2009 warrants investigation into its effects on biodiversity, others have recommended thinning and hardwood mid-story control within pine plantations to provide habitat for regionally declining bird species, which is consistent with use of biomass for energy and reducing the risk of fire. While all energy use affects the environment, these results show that benefits accrue when sustainable forest management provides wood pellets for energy that keep fossil fuel in the ground. By contrast urbanization is the greatest cause of forest loss in the SE US. It is essential to consistently monitor and assess forest conditions to assess changes, for exports of wood-based pellets for the southern US are expected to grow. Even though use of pellets for energy has more than doubled, the pellet industry constitutes < 1% of US forest products by weight. Therefore, any recent changes in SE US forest conditions are more likely related to the 2008 declines in the housing market. Continued analysis of annual FIA data using the methods outlined in this manuscript provides a scientifically valid approach for ongoing assessment.

Phone
Publication Year
Email
Dalevh@ornl.gov
DOI
http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.foreco.2017.03.022
Contact Person
Virginia H. Dale
Contact Organization
Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Author
Dale VH , ES Parish , Kline KL , Tobin E

Abstract

The ongoing debate about costs and benefits of wood-pellet based bioenergy production in the southeastern United States (SE USA) requires an understanding of the science and context influencing market decisions associated with its sustainability. Production of pellets has garnered much attention as US exports have grown from negligible amounts in the early 2000s to 4.6 million metric tonnes in 2015. Currently, 98% of these pellet exports are shipped to Europe to displace coal in power plants. We ask, ‘How is the production of wood pellets in the SE USA affecting forest systems and the ecosystem services they provide?’ To address this question, we review current forest conditions and the status of the wood products industry, how pellet production affects ecosystem services and biodiversity, and what methods are in place to monitor changes and protect vulnerable systems. Scientific studies provide evidence that wood pellets in the SE USA are a fraction of total forestry operations and can be produced while maintaining or improving forest ecosystem services. Ecosystem services are protected by the requirement to utilize loggers trained to apply scientifically based best management practices in planning and implementing harvest for the export market. Bioenergy markets supplement incomes to private rural landholders and provide an incentive for forest management practices that simultaneously benefit water quality and wildlife and reduce risk of fire and insect outbreaks. Bioenergy also increases the value of forest land to landowners, thereby decreasing likelihood of conversion to nonforest uses. Monitoring and evaluation are essential to verify that regulations and good practices are achieving goals and to enable timely responses if problems arise. Conducting rigorous research to understand how conditions change in response to management choices requires baseline data, monitoring, and appropriate reference scenarios. Long-term monitoring data on forest conditions should be publicly accessible and utilized to inform adaptive management.

Phone
Publication Year
Email
Dalevh@ornl.gov
DOI
doi: 10.1111/gcbb.12445
Contact Person
Virginia H. Dale
Contact Organization
Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Author
Dale VH , KL Kline , ES Parish , AL Cowie , R Emory , RW Malmsheimer , R Slade , CT Smith , TB Wigley , NS Bentsen , G Berndes , P Bernier , M Brandão , H Chum , R Diaz-Chavez , G Egnell , L Gustavsson , J Schweinle , I Stupak , P Trianosky , A Walter , C Whittaker , M Brown , G Chescheir , I Dimitriou , C Donnison , A Goss Eng , KP Hoyt , JC Jenkins , K Johnson , CA Levesque , V Lockhart , MC Negri , JE Nettles , M Wellisch

Several EU countries import wood pellets from the south-eastern United States. The imported wood pellets are (co-)fired in power plants with the aim of reducing overall greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from electricity and meeting EU renewable energy targets. To assess whether GHG emissions are reduced and on what timescale, we construct the GHG balance of wood-pellet electricity. This GHG balance consists of supply chain and combustion GHG emissions, carbon sequestration during biomass growth and avoided GHG emissions through replacing fossil electricity. We investigate wood pellets from four softwood feedstock types: small roundwood, commercial thinnings, harvest residues and mill residues. Per feedstock, the GHG balance of wood-pellet electricity is compared against those of alternative scenarios. Alternative scenarios are combinations of alternative fates of the feedstock materials, such as in-forest decomposition, or the production of paper or wood panels like oriented strand board (OSB). Alternative scenario composition depends on feedstock type and local demand for this feedstock. Results indicate that the GHG balance of wood-pellet electricity equals that of alternative scenarios within 0–21 years (the GHG parity time), after which wood-pellet electricity has sustained climate benefits. Parity times increase by a maximum of 12 years when varying key variables (emissions associated with paper and panels, soil carbon increase via feedstock decomposition, wood-pellet electricity supply chain emissions) within maximum plausible ranges. Using commercial thinnings, harvest residues or mill residues as feedstock leads to the shortest GHG parity times (0–6 years) and fastest GHG benefits from wood-pellet electricity. We find shorter GHG parity times than previous studies, for we use a novel approach that differentiates feedstocks and considers alternative scenarios based on (combinations of) alternative feedstock fates, rather than on alternative land uses. This novel approach is relevant for bioenergy derived from low-value feedstocks.

Phone
Publication Year
Email
Dalevh@ornl.gov
DOI
DOI: 10.1111/gcbb.12426
Contact Person
Virginia H. Dale
Contact Organization
Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Bioenergy Category
Author
Hanssen SV , Duden AS , Junginger HM , Dale VH , van der Hilst F
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