President Biden recently laid out a detailed plan to strengthen America’s forests. Renewable wood energy—that is, biomass energy produced from wood that is not suitable for higher-value products—is an important element of the administration’s strategy.
And it should be: renewable wood energy has strong international and domestic support. Most notably, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), considered the leading authority on keeping global temperatures in check, includes wood bioenergy as an essential piece of the puzzle. Policymakers like European Union Climate Chief Frans Timmermans have echoed this support, acknowledging that the world cannot meet ambitious climate goals without wood energy.
Bioenergy also enjoys broad political and geographic support here at home, from Green New Deal leader Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), to climate warrior Gov. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), to Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ariz.), the co-chair of the House Working Forest Caucus.
Nonetheless, some have argued that the Biden administration’s support of bioenergy is misplaced. It’s part of a larger argument from groups that are increasingly opposing all forest products, not just wood energy (which can displace coal and other fossil fuels), but also mass timber (which can replace cement and steel), and paper (which can replace plastic).
The reality is: thoughtful and sustainable management of our nation’s forests advances national priorities on multiple fronts. In addition to reducing emissions, renewable wood energy production can provide critical support for local, rural economies, reduce energy dependence from places like Russia, and strengthen the overall health of public and private forests.
Privately Owned Land
Let’s focus on U.S. forests. First, demand for forest products creates incentives to grow trees on private land. Some 56% of American forestland is privately owned. These private landowners often have many options for income generation: they can grow trees or other crops, raise cattle, or develop their land. Ultimately, the best climate outcome is for landowners to grow trees, but the economics are often stacked against it.
Put simply, landowners won’t grow trees if they can’t make money doing it. That means we need markets for all parts of the tree—not only the high-value pieces that become permanent carbon storage, like construction materials, but also the lower-value wood, such as commercial thinnings, tree tops and limbs, understory trees, and trees that may be diseased, crooked, or knotted and are therefore unsuitable for other wood products.
Renewable wood energy provides an important additive market—increasing the likelihood that private timberlands will continue to grow trees rather than some other use.
Increased Supply Base
And we know forest product markets work. In the U.S. Southeast, where 86% of forestland is privately held and where most U.S.-manufactured sustainable biomass is produced, forest stocks have increased by more than 100% since 1953. Between 2010 and 2019, standing forest inventory across the U.S. Southeast supply base increased by more than 400 million metric tons, adding an estimated 100 million metric tons of additional carbon storage to our forests.
Second, a market for biomass can help decrease wildfires on public land. We are living through what has increasingly seemed like a year-round fire season. The administration’s plan also supports better maintenance of public forests, including hazardous fuels reduction. This follows the lead of states like California, which have long recognized the benefits of supporting small biomass plants as a way of both stopping massive wildfires and promoting renewable energy.
California understands that public forests have turned into tinder boxes—with a dry understory of small trees that create a fire ladder for massive wildfires. State officials have worked with environmentalists on a solution to clear out the underbrush, with the goal of leaving taller mature trees that are less susceptible to fire. But that work is expensive and can only be paid for if there is a market for the wood that is cleared off the land.
Bioenergy offers a win-win solution: a market incentive to manage the forestland that also produces renewable energy. Similar ideas have been promoted in Washington by Sens. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho).
The U.S. has work to do if it wants to lead on climate change. We are moving slower than Europe and Asia, and missing opportunities to use all renewable low-carbon technologies. Wood energy is not a panacea—but it is a key part of the solution that is available today. And one that is backed by science, embraced by climate leaders around the world, and supported by Democrats and Republicans across this country.
—Jason Eberstein is vice president of Government Relations at Enviva, the world’s largest producer of industrial wood pellets.