President-elect Donald Trump could make good on his promise to rescue America’s dying coal industry, with a little help from wood pellets, a Maine-based global expert on pellet fuels is suggesting.

Burning a mix of 10 percent wood pellets in coal-fired power plants is common now in Europe. Doing that in the United States could save tens of thousands of mining jobs, create a similar number of new jobs in the forestry and pellet-making sectors, spur billions of dollars in investment and improve air quality, according to William Strauss, president of FutureMetrics in Bethel.

1138974_247191 TotalWoodPelletShip0.jpgOverseas, the costs of co-firing wood fuel in coal plants are subsidized by governments, to meet strict European Union rules aimed at cutting air emissions linked to climate change. In the United States, Strauss said, the Trump administration would need to conclude that a small government subsidy is worthwhile to preserve a power sector that’s being replaced by natural gas-fired generation.

“If the market is left on its own,” Strauss said, “coal plants will continue to retire and natural gas will take its place.”

That outlook was underlined last week by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in a report on coal production during 2016. Politicians including Trump frequently blame the Obama administration’s “war on coal” for the closing of power plants and associated jobs. But government data collectors cited low natural gas prices, warmer-than-normal temperatures last winter, the retirements of some coal-fired generators, and lower international coal demand as the leading factors.

“U.S. coal production in 2016 is expected to total 743 million short tons, 17 percent lower than in 2015, and the lowest level since 1978,” the EIA reported.

The FutureMetrics proposal is contained in a paper posted on the company’s website Jan. 2. It’s circulating as wood pellets and chips from the Southeast are becoming a major export commodity to Europe and the United Kingdom. Later this year, wood chips are expected to be shipped from Maine to power plants in Europe.

It’s too early to say whether the FutureMetrics plan will gain traction, although it was downloaded 800 times from the website during the first four days.

Environmental advocates who have been fighting wood pellet exports to Europe say this is a bad idea that will deplete forests and prolong the lives of dirty coal plants that contribute to climate change.

Strauss is an economist and an international consultant on industrial wood pellets. He also is a co-founder, with Bethel businessman Les Otten, of Maine Energy Systems. The company assembles an Austrian-made, home-size pellet boiler and delivers wood pellets in Maine.

The paper notes that the vast majority of the 435 large U.S. coal-fired power plants use a pulverized technology, in which coal is crushed into a powder and blown into burners. Industrial wood pellets also can be pulverized, and modifying boilers to burn them at a 10 percent ratio doesn’t affect output or reliability, Strauss said.

Strauss points out that the most coal plants are in states where pulp and paper mills are closing. Industrial pellets can be made from the same forest resources, and he estimates that a 500,000 ton-per-year pellet plant can support 800 jobs in forestry operations. A plant that size represents an investment of roughly $125 million, Strauss said.

1138974_247191 WoodPelletShipments0.jpgBased on a 10 percent ratio, the cost of making the needed plant changes would add less than a penny to the kilowatt-hour cost of producing electricity, Strass estimates.

His paper concludes: “The growth of a U.S. co-firing market would spur billions of dollars of investment in new industrial pellet manufacturing plants in the heartland of the U.S.”

WOOD AS FUEL

Similar subsidies overseas help countries meet European Union clean-energy goals. But because those countries lack large forests, an industry has sprung up to harvest the fast-growing woodlands of the Southeast United States, move wood to ports and ship it across the Atlantic Ocean. In 2015, North American wood pellet exports reached a record-high 6.1 million tons, much of it from the Southeast, according to the North American Wood Fiber Review.

The United Kingdom has received much of the volume. The Drax Power Station in England, the country’s largest, has three of six coal units co-firing biomass. Two burn 100 percent pellets and the third recently won subsidies to convert to wood. The power station will need 2.4 million tons a year, according to EU figures.

Maine, which is 90 percent forested and closer to Europe than Southeast ports, has been slow to participate in this trend. But plans are underway to ship wood chips from Eastport this year, according to the Eastport Port Authority. A startup company, Maine Woods Biomass Exports LLC, also intends to ship chips to Europe in 2018.

This growth is sustainable and good for both American forests and jobs, according to the U.S. Industrial Pellet Association, which has reviewed the FutureMetrics proposal.

William Strauss, a global expert on biofuels based in Bethel, estimates that a 500,000-ton-per-year pellet plant could support 800 jobs in forestry.

William Strauss, a global expert on biofuels based in Bethel, estimates that a 500,000-ton-per-year pellet plant could support 800 jobs in forestry.

“As Dr. Strauss alludes to in his white paper, wood pellets not only lower carbon emissions, but also contribute to the strong forest products industry, which supports over 950,000 American jobs,” said Jessica Marcus, the group’s vice president of policy and operations.

“Markets for wood products incentivize U.S. landowners to manage and sustain their forested lands, which results in more forests and healthier forests overall.”

That position got some support last month in a new U.S. EIA survey on pellet production and sales. It found that roughly 85 percent of raw materials for biomass pellets come from wood waste, such as logging and sawmill residues.

But that finding is contested by interest groups such as the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charlottesville, Virginia. They are alarmed by the pace of harvesting in the Southeast and its impact on biodiversity and wildlife. They say there’s not enough waste wood to support the rapid growth in pellet production for export, no less feeding domestic power plants.

“Pellets for the EU and UK are made from trunks of trees,” said David Carr, the center’s general counsel. “They want clean chips. They aren’t burning residue.”

Burning large volumes of wood quickly now is worse than burning coal, because wood produces more carbon emissions per BTU, according to Derb Carter, who heads the group’s office in North Carolina.

“Most scientists agree the next few decades are the most critical to reducing carbon emissions,” he said. “The only thing green about wood biomass from whole trees is the government subsidized money in the name of clean energy, based on inaccurate assumptions of carbon reductions.”

Strauss counters that co-firing coal with wood lowers air emissions associated with health problems, as well as carbon dioxide that warms the atmosphere. “They have their own vision of reality,” he said of environmental opponents.

Strauss also contends that demand for fiber won’t exceed the annual growth rate. The United States can sustainably harvest 20 million tons per year of pellet fuel, he said.