Photographs by Will Lanzoni, CNN
Video by Matthew Gannon, Demetrius Pipkin & Nick Scott, CNN
Published July 9, 2021
Andrea Macklin never turns off his TV. It’s the only way to drown out the noise from the wood mill bordering his backyard, the jackhammer sound of the plant piercing his walls and windows. The 18-wheelers carrying logs rumble by less than 100 feet from his house, all day and night, shaking it as if an earthquake has taken over this tranquil corner of North Carolina. He’s been wearing masks since long before the coronavirus pandemic, just to keep the dust out of his lungs.
Some nights, he only sleeps for two or three hours. Breathing is a chore.
“I haven’t had proper rest since they’ve been here,” he said.
That was eight years ago, when the world’s largest biomass producer, Enviva, opened its second North Carolina facility just west of Macklin’s property in Garysburg. The operation takes mostly hardwood trees and spits out biomass, or wood pellets, a highly processed and compressed wood product burned to generate energy. Enviva is one of nearly a dozen similar companies benefiting from a sustainability commitment made 4,000 miles away, more than a decade ago.
In 2009, the European Union (EU) pledged to curb greenhouse gas emissions, urging its member states to shift from fossil fuels to renewables. In its Renewable Energy Directive (RED), the EU classified biomass as a renewable energy source — on par with wind and solar power. As a result, the directive prompted state governments to incentivize energy providers to burn biomass instead of coal — and drove up demand for wood.
So much so that the American South emerged as Europe’s primary source of biomass imports.
Earlier this year, the EU was celebrated in headlines across the world when renewable energy surpassed the use of fossil fuels on the continent for the first time in history.
But scientists and experts say it’s too early to celebrate, arguing that relying on biomass for energy has a punishing impact not only on the environment, but also on marginalized communities — perpetuating decades of environmental racism in predominantly Black communities like Northampton County, where Macklin and his family have lived for generations.
Macklin’s elderly aunt lives right behind him, a tall Magnolia tree provides shade to both their homes. His mother’s house is just down the street. They used to have large family cookouts in his garden while the kids played on the lawn, but they haven’t done that in years. Between the noise and the sawdust from the plant, his home is no longer a safe place to gather.
But it’s the pollution that worries him most.
“You don’t know what’s coming out of the smokestack,” said Macklin. “That’s my main concern.”
To say cutting down trees and burning them for power is a renewable energy source feels counterintuitive and, in reality, it is.
Burning wood is less efficient than burning coal and releases far more carbon into the atmosphere, according to almost 800 scientists who wrote a 2018 letter to the European parliament, pushing members to amend the current directive “to avoid expansive harm to the world’s forests and the acceleration of climate change.” President Joe Biden and other world leaders received a similar letter from hundreds of climate scientists earlier this year.
The EU directive that encouraged the pivot to biomass also left a loophole — it did not prevent the leveling of rooted trees for wood pellet production.
“I can’t think of anything that harms nature more than cutting down trees and burning them,” said William Moomaw, professor emeritus of international environmental policy at Tufts University.
Yet by burning wood, European power plants can reduce their carbon footprint — at least on paper.