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Burning wood pellets isn't the 'clean energy' it claims to be, critics say


The U.K. is hosting global climate talks, but it's also under fire for using a controversial form of clean energy - burning wood pellets. Britain and Europe are importing more of them. They're produced here in the U.S. at plants across the South, where neighbors say the industry threatens their health. David Boraks of member station WFAE reports.

DAVID BORAKS, BYLINE: Marvin Clayborn (ph) lives less than a half-mile from the Enviva wood pellet plant in Northampton County in northeastern North Carolina. It's always been an area of woods and farm fields, but he says everything changed when the plant opened in 2013.

BORAKS: It's not healthy at all. (Unintelligible) started hearing the noise and the substance in the air. Ain't no telling what you breathing in.

BORAKS: Trucks carrying trees and wood waste come and go, and machinery hums day and night. Clayborn says it's often hard to sleep. As with many wood pellet plants, this one is in a place that's low income and majority African American. People have been concerned ever since Enviva opened, says another neighbor and community organizer, Ritchie Harding (ph).

RITCHIE HARDING: We have people that live directly around these facilities that's having a lot of issues with dust. Every couple of days, they've got to wash their cars - the noise, the traffic. You know, it's a lot having a facility of this type running 24/7.

BORAKS: It's the same story in communities across the South, where Enviva and other companies are cutting trees, turning them into wood pellets and shipping them to power plants in Europe. These plants are at the center of two debates, one over environmental justice and another over just how climate-friendly wood pellets actually are. The industry is growing quickly because of government subsidies on both sides of the Atlantic and global rules that allow wood pellets to qualify as carbon neutral. Tim Benton is with British research firm Chatham House, which last month issued a report critical of the wood pellet industry.

TIM BENTON: Framing biomass burning as carbon neutral has incentivized the forest industry to gear up to produce wood pellets for power plants in Britain, the EU, South Korea and beyond.

BORAKS: Power plants don't have to count CO2 emissions when they burn wood. Instead, emissions are supposed to be counted where the trees are cut. The Chatham House study argues that lots of other emissions in the process don't get counted - from harvesting, processing, trucking and shipping. Trees do grow back, so they're renewable, but wood pellets actually burn dirtier than coal, which they're replacing. North Carolina conservationist Andy Wood (ph) says the industry is bad for the climate.

ANDY WOOD: The carbon footprint is enormous, which is why this does not work as a renewable source of energy. That is a contrived and fabricated claim.

BORAKS: Even North Carolina doesn't count wood pellets as clean energy. Still, the industry is expanding across the South, which is near East Coast ports, and where most forest land is privately owned with fewer restrictions. Enviva says it's a good corporate citizen. About 100 people work at the Northampton plant, earning 40% more than the county's average wage. Another 300 have jobs with trucking companies and contractors. Don Calloway is an Enviva's head of equity, inclusion and impact.

DON CALLOWAY: We pay well. We're very proud of that because these are communities which have been hit hard by the move away from industrialization. Over the last 50 years, a lot of facilities of all kinds - textiles, forest products, industry - have left these towns.

BORAKS: Enviva declined our request to visit the plant, citing the pandemic. And county officials did not return calls seeking comment. Enviva does note that the United Nations has endorsed bioenergy, and company officials say they provide a market for low-value wood and encourage their suppliers to replant trees. The Northampton plant meets state air quality standards, and in August, won an updated state air quality permit. Still, Northampton organizer Ritchie Harding worries about the dust. He has a lung condition that sometimes makes it hard to breathe. He says he'd like to see the Enviva plant go away, but...

HARDING: Realistically, I don't know if our government or our policymakers here are going to do anything to make them leave.

BORAKS: Harding says his goal is a safe community, so better dust controls would be a good first step. For NPR News, I'm David Boraks in Northampton County, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Boraks
David Boraks is a WFAE weekend host and a producer for "Charlotte Talks." He's a veteran Charlotte-area journalist who has worked part-time at WFAE since 2007 and for other outlets including DavidsonNews.net and The Charlotte Observer.