This series on the wood pellet industry and the different views on the role of North Carolina forests in combating climate change took six months to put together, but drew on years of experience and reporting. It was produced in partnership with The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
By Saul Elbein, Justin Catanoso, Richard Stradling and Dave Hendrickson
Part 1: Europe uses tons of NC trees as fuel. Will this solve climate change?
From the outskirts of Selby, a 1,200-year-old former coal-mining town in northern England, you can see the smokestack and the dozen cooling towers of the Drax Power Station, the largest power plant in the United Kingdom.
For much of its 45-year-history, Drax burned coal mined from the nearby Selby coalfield. But the last coal mine closed in 2004 and now Drax says it has gone green — with help from the trees of North Carolina.
Thousands and thousands of acres’ worth of North Carolina trees have been felled, shredded and baked into the wood pellets that have mostly replaced coal as Drax’s fuel.
In a corner of Drax’s 400-acre compound are four metal silos, each larger than London’s Albert Hall, according to the company’s website. That’s where 300,000 metric tons of wood pellets — also called biomass — are stored. A dozen 25-car trains arrive daily, delivering 20,000 tons a day, six days a week.
What makes biomass good for the environment? It has to do with carbon dioxide, the odorless, colorless gas most responsible for climate change.
Wood, like coal, is mostly carbon. The thinking is, if you burn wood and plant a new tree, the new tree will absorb the carbon dioxide given off when you burn the old one. If you burn coal, the CO2 given off stays in the atmosphere, trapping the sun’s heat and warming the planet.
But many scientists have said that biomass calculation is inaccurate. For one thing, it doesn’t include the CO2 given off by cutting down trees, shredding, baking and compressing them into pellets, and shipping them to England. Nor does it account for the fact that even the processed wood pellets burned at facilities like Drax give off one and a half times as much CO2 as an equal quantity of coal — while generating a third less energy.
And even if a new tree is planted for each one burned, the scientists say, it would take decades for a new tree to absorb the CO2 released by burning the old one. The consensus among climate scientists is: We don’t have that much time.
Over the past six months, The News & Observer, with support from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, has been examining the wood pellet industry and its effect on North Carolina, which according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, will soon produce and export more wood pellets than any other state.