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Virginia’s forests play key role in fighting climate change

By Harrell Turner

Tackling climate change can seem daunting, but it’s time we recognize the role Virginia’s forests and our forest products industry can play to help preserve our environment for the next generation.

Much of the discussion around the future of renewable energy revolves around solar and wind, and while these energy sources are key players in the climate change equation, these two energy sources cannot possibly satisfy the global demand for energy. It is going to take a combination of several renewable initiatives to totally replace the use of fossil fuels.

That’s why wood biomass is becoming one of the go-to energy sources for countries looking to cut emissions and protect our planet. Virginia is blessed to have so many dedicated private forestland owners, who through their stewardship of their forests, can provide the solution to a global problem.

Here’s how it works: wood biomass, in the form of wood pellets, can be used as a replacement industrial energy fuel for aging coal plants. A recent study by researchers at the University of Illinois finds that using wood pellets instead of coal reduces carbon emissions by up to 85 percent on a lifecycle analysis basis.

Accordingly, the United Kingdom and other European Union countries are converting existing coal burning power stations to be able to use biomass in order to meet the carbon reduction goals set across Europe. As a result, the UK has seen a 75 percent reduction in coal use — a game-changing benefit to our environment.

One of the companies leading this conversion is Enviva, which has a pellet facility and a port operation in Virginia. Now the largest wood pellet producer in the world, Enviva not only provides quality employment at its two facilities, it also provides extra markets for forestland owners and Virginia’s own Sharp Loggers, who are professionally trained, to sustainably source wood fiber for biomass that replaces coal.

History has demonstrated that strong and diverse markets for wood fiber is the key to healthy, productive forests. It keeps the typical cycle for a private forestland owner of plant, manage, harvest, plant again, in motion.

Enviva’s wood pellets are made out of low-quality, less-marketable fiber on the landscape. During the pellet production process, there are no chemicals or additives used. It is simply wood fiber being compressed into pellet form and is done in accordance with state and federal guidelines.

As for the forest resource, recent data shows the forestland owners in the Southeast grow 40 percent more wood than is harvested annually. When landowners are encouraged to stay in the forestry cycle, you can expect the net size of forests to grow — and that’s exactly what’s happening.

Over the last half century, the net volume of trees per acre in the Southeast has nearly doubled and this is in the face of a remarkable population growth for the region. In Virginia specifically, forest inventory has grown 23 percent since 2000, adding some 190,000 acres in forest land since 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Recently Enviva announced a $79 million expansion project for the company’s pellet facility in Southampton County — this is nearly matching the original investment. The majority of the expansion project focuses on adding air quality control measures to allow Enviva to be more flexible in the use of softwoods and hardwoods and will boost production by 20 percent. This is great news for Southampton County and good news for all of those who play a role in the forest products industry in Virginia!

We should take pride in our stewardship of our most valuable renewable resource, our forests. Through the diligence of the private, public and academia sectors, Virginia is poised make a difference in renewable energy field, providing another solution to the climate change challenge.

HARRELL TURNER is a consulting forester who owns and operates CHT Forestry LLC. A Registered Forester and member of the Association of Consulting Foresters, Turner has over four decades of experience in the forest products industry. He lives in Branchville and is a graduate of Virginia Tech with a Forestry and Wildlife Degree.