Build It And The Forests Will Fall

This week, Dominion Resources announced that it has converted the first of three power stations in Virginia from coal to biomass.  They announced that they are investing $165 million to build out these projects, and that these three plants will be fueled by wood from forests.  Dominion has among the largest investments in biomass-generated power in the Southeast region, and the three new projects in Altavista, Hopewell, and Southampton County will only expand that reach.

A good thing? Hardly.

It could lead to increased cutting of southeastern forests.  And there is no guarantee it will really cut carbon pollution.  So it shouldn’t be heralded as a green project.

To power its existing facilities, Dominion relies on "residues" from logging operations (treetops and branches) that come from verifiably unsustainable forestry: wood suppliers Enviva7 and Meadwestvaco.8  A recent investigative piece in The Wall Street Journal describes how Enviva sources trees from some of the most environmentally sensitive natural forests in the Southeast, including clear-cutting wood from wetland forests, some with trees more than 100 years old. While the industry typically argues that these types of destructive practices are isolated, they are actually representative of a simple fact: Enviva, a direct supplier to Dominion, is failing to protect important ecosystems, and Dominion’s supply is therefore tainted.

MeadWestvaco, for its part, is a known laggard on sustainable wood sourcing in the Southern forest industry, relying on the weak Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) certification. SFI certification is not much more than a greenwashing operation. It allows some of the worst forest management practices to occur, such as large-scale clearcutting, logging of endangered forests, and the conversion of biologically diverse natural forests to plantations.

Equally troubling, Dominion has no long-term sourcing policy that rejects whole trees. So these new projects – while currently fueled by “residues” - could very soon be fueled by whole trees over the long term. 

Why does this matter?

First, the additional demand for logs can destroy ecosystems that can never be replaced.  Furthermore, we now know - based on recent scientific findings - that burning whole trees to produce electricity actually increases carbon pollution, meaning it has an even worse impact on climate change than coal and other fossil fuels.  So, should the economics of Dominion’s supplies change, or the supply of residuals become limited, Dominion's operations could become dominated by whole trees. The result of that switch: more carbon pollution compared to the coal that has been displaced in the first place by the plant conversion. 

Dominion is rapidly expanding capacity to burn biomass. In total, the company is now poised to have a generation capacity of approximately 350 MW of electricity from burning biomass with potential for more in the future.  This is indeed a very bad trend for the environment.