Europe Looks to North America’s Forests to Meet Renewable Energy Goals

Emissions reductions, however, may prove smaller and slower than once expected

3 min read
North American wood is fueling Europe’s biomass and coal plants.
Wood Fired: North American wood is fueling Europe’s biomass and coal plants.
Photo: RWE

An energy export boom is sweeping U.S. forests. The trees are fast becoming a crucial energy supply for European power producers seeking to meet the European Union’s goal for renewable energy use and carbon emissions reductions. Blending in biomass to coal-fired power stations is an increasingly popular strategy to meet the European targets, which call for renewable sources to meet 20 percent of energy demand by 2020 and for a 20 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels.

Experts in life-cycle analysis, however, question whether burning biomass to generate power does Earth’s atmosphere much good. That’s because trees harvested expressly for power generation—which European Commission–financed research suggests will provide at least two thirds of utilities’ biomass supply needs through 2030—potentially could have grown larger and absorbed more carbon from the atmosphere if they had been left unharvested.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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