The business of exporting US-produced wood pellets to burn as biomass fuel continues to grow despite formidable challenges.

A new alliance between fuel supplier Enviva and wood pellet manufacturer Biomass Energy is targeting the export of more than 350,000 metric tonnes (385,800 short tons) of wood pellets and wood chips over the next three years. The wood-based fuel will originate from Biomass Energy’s Bumpass, Virginia facility.

“Much of [the] supply will be exported to Enviva’s European utility customers who, like other power producers around the globe, are increasingly turning to processed biomass fuel to reduce the environmental footprint of energy generation,” Enviva said in announcing the agreement.

Wood pellets and chips are used either alone or cofired with coal in boilers to drive electricity turbines, largely although not exclusively among European generators facing carbon emissions restrictions. Although burning the wood biomass fuel creates carbon dioxide emissions, the fuel is treated under European emissions schemes as carbon-neutral because newly-planted trees can absorb the emitted carbon dioxide at the same rate it is released. Wood chips can be comparatively easily used, transported and stored alongside coal at traditional thermal power plants, limiting the requirement to bring on large-scale wind, solar and other low-carbon fuel in the short term.

Enviva and Biomass Energy have already begun their partnership with operations and maintenance at the Bumpass facility, and will expand and upgrade the facility’s production capacity and throughput. The wood chips and pellets will be moved through Enviva’s Chesapeake, Virginia deepwater port.

Enviva already has experience moving biomass to export from US production to European generators, and operates biomass production facilities in Mississippi, North Carolina and Virginia. It also operates a combined heat-and-power pellet manufacturing facility in Belgium. Biomass Energy has traditionally operated in the domestic market, with sales of pellets in plastic bags to homeowners and on a larger scale to schools and other institutions with wood-burning boilers.

Biomass use in the US is controversial, in part because the science behind carbon lifecycle accounting is widely debated (read more here). The US Environmental Protection Agency earlier this year delayed a decision on biomass emissions until the science could be resolved.

In the meantime, companies like Dominion Virginia Power continue to press ahead with biomass-fueled power facilities as they try to balance state-level requirements for production of renewable energy with the need for reliable, non-intermittent power.