Good Life

More Southern forests at risk from biomass plants, report indicates

A new report says Southern forests are at risk from biomass plants that burn wood to make energy.

The report, released Tuesday by two environmental groups, says the expanding biomass industry will look at cutting trees to fuel the power plants, a departure from the current practice of using waste wood from sawmills and other sources.

The report raises questions about whether the South will have an adequate supply of waste wood, thereby increasing the need to cut trees specifically for biomass plants.

In addition to concerns about deforestation, the report says biomass plants could cause a spike in atmospheric carbon over the next 35-50 years. Carbon is a pollutant that contributes to climate change. Long-term carbon levels should drop, but researchers question whether that will be soon enough to help stop global warming.

The report was done for the Southern Environmental Law Center and the National Wildlife Federation by the Biomass Energy Resource Center and others.

The report looks at conditions at proposed and existing biomass plants in the Southeast, including six in South Carolina. Those plants are in Newberry, Darlington, Aiken, Charleston, Marlboro and Orangeburg counties, the report says. Region-wide, the study analyzed 17 existing and 22 planned biomass plants in seven states.

Biomass is an alternate energy source that boosters say could help reduce the nation’s reliance on coal and nuclear power plants, both of which have substantial impacts on the environment. Coal-fired power plants release toxic pollutants and greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Nuclear plants produce deadly waste.

Biomass would not be expected to replace coal or nuclear, but biomass plants could help diversify the nation’s sources of energy.

“While biomass offers some environmental benefits, any expanded use of logging residue and live trees will affect forest structure and nutrient cycling,” said Robert Perschel, eastern forests director with Forest Guild, which helped compile the report.

“This raises questions of long-term forest health and other environmental factors, such as water quality and wildlife habitat, that need to be addressed by further study and reasonable guidelines for the industry.”

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