Insight in sustainable export of pellets from Southeast US

News

Insight in sustainable export of pellets from Southeast US

Published on
December 2, 2019

A European consortium, including Wageningen University & Research, has analysed the current and future use and management of forests in Southeastern USA. Results show that sustainable export of pellets is possible and coincides with developments in the traditional forestry industry. This research is part of BioTrade2020plus, a project intended to develop guidelines for a sustainable bio-energy market in Europe.

The Southeastern US is characterised by a very large forest area, that has been under management by foresters for over a hundred years. The area, with a size of 100 million hectares, stretches from Philadelphia up to the state of Mississippi. The area consists of intensive plantations and strict reserves of oak and swamp cypress forests.

The pellet-industry in this area is growing rapidly ever since 2009, mainly because of the increased export servicing the energy production. Wood pellets are made of pressed dry and chipped wood of a low quality. These are being exported among others to Europe, to generate energy in biomass plants and are thus a commodity in the bio-economy. All sorts of products, that can replace fossil fuels, plastics and polyester, can be fabricated from pellets.

Figure 1. Forests in the Southeast of the US. The intensive plantations are loblolly-shortleaf pine (light pink). Along the coast the swamp forests oak-gum-cypress (dark green) are strictly protected. Source: USDA Forest service fia.fs.fed.us
Figure 1. Forests in the Southeast of the US. The intensive plantations are loblolly-shortleaf pine (light pink). Along the coast the swamp forests oak-gum-cypress (dark green) are strictly protected. Source: USDA Forest service fia.fs.fed.us

Development pellet-industry

The pellet-industry produces around 14 million tonnes of pellets per year nowadays; five percent of the total production of wood products (sawnwood, paper, boards, veneer) from the Southeast of the US (Figure 2). Pellet factories are especially emerging in places where the paper industry is declining. This study looks into how the traditional forestry industry (sawmills, paper, etc.) in the Southeast will develop. The total demand for wood has been taken into account, linked with sustainable forest management and the protection of biodiversity. Areas of a high biodiversity value have been excluded from wood production in the analysis, in an even more strict sense than is already the case in the United States nowadays.

Figure 2. Production of wood pellets (since 2009) in the perspective of the total annual wood production in Southeastern US.
Figure 2. Production of wood pellets (since 2009) in the perspective of the total annual wood production in Southeastern US.

The opportunities for sustainable export of the pellet industry appear depending upon developments in the rest of the forestry industry. For example, with a higher demand for sawnwood for wooden house-building, a large volume of wood of a low quality appears to become available for the pellet industry. With an increasing demand for sawnwood, forest owners will plant more trees, that has an effect after 20 to 30 years. With a high demand for wooden boards (MDF, OSB) it is apparent, on the other hand, that less wood becomes available for the pellet industry.

Export potential

On the basis of these data, it becomes clear that the sustainable export potential from Southeastern US is around 35 million tonnes of pellets – double the current production. “In the long term (after 2040) this potential is even higher,” says Gert-Jan Nabuurs, Professor in European Forests at Wageningen University & Research. “But the assumptions about the traditional forest sector become more uncertain then as well. In some scenarios the export potential is higher, when for example the board industry should be producing less”. The results are especially sensitive to assumptions about the other sectors of the forestry industry.

Despite the growth of the pellet industry, the extra growth of the forests remains higher than the harvest. Annually 360 million m3 round wood grows, while 220 million m3 is harvested. More forest is being planted because of the growing demand for wood and the increasing prices this brings along. “Europe applies a stringent certification policy to the import of wood pellets, unlike Japan and Korea do. The sustainability requirements are much lighter in the latter countries. The export will keep servicing this market as well. In this light, it is important to support sustainable forest management that allows the forest to fulfil its functions, while it plays its part in providing renewable resources for a fast-growing world population.”

Figure 3. Sustainable pellet export potential of the forests in Southeast US.
Figure 3. Sustainable pellet export potential of the forests in Southeast US.