Over 350 industrial wood pellet value chain stakeholders from around the world recently converged in Miami Beach, Florida for the annual US Industrial Pellet Association (USIPA) conference – a record-breaking turnout for an unprecedented USIPA conference.
The upbeat atmosphere and the new hotel conference venue provided a most amicable backdrop to the event, though one or other producers may be feeling more beat up on account of being battered by an ongoing stampede of bearish stock market bulls. The which, what, who, when, where, why, how, and ramifications of this stampede depending on how it all plays out tabled for a later stock-take (poor pun intended) but it does highlight an underlying theme at this year’s USIPA conference – public perception (of forest biomass) and communication.
A number of subtle yet noteworthy items could be spotted in the conference program itself – beginning with the name. While export has been and remains a core focus area for USIPA and its pellet-producing members, it is unlikely to be the only option going ahead. Having Carrie Annand, Executive Director of the Biomass Power Association (BPA) present an overview of the US market and policy in the signature global “Market and Policy Update” session suggests that dropping the “Exporting Pellets” in the conference name is a prudent future-proofing move.
On the topic of markets and market opportunities, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) was featured from several perspectives in different sessions including a keynote address by Will Gardiner, CEO of Drax Group in the opening session. Apparently his first appearance at a USIPA conference but most timely given that Drax is in the unique position of being the world’s single largest consumer of industrial wood pellets, the world’s second-largest producer of the said pellets, and that it has selected Houston, Texas (TX) earlier this year as its North American HQ for its “BECCS by Drax” business unit.
While Drax has yet to actually go ahead and fully implement BECCS at its UK power station, Danish energy utility colleagues Ørsted are in this respect a step ahead – both on BECCS and BECCU. The former at its woodchip-fired Asnæs Power Station and the straw-fired boiler at its Avedøre Power Station. The latter is the FlagshipONE eMethanol project in Örnsköldsvik, Sweden which Ørsted acquired full ownership from Swedish power-to-liquid developers Liquid Wind, and which began construction earlier this year. As it transpired in a discussion moderated by Fiona Matthews, Director Bioenergy at Hawkins Wright between two Ørsted directors – Peter Kofod Kristensen, Bioenergy Sustainability, and Søren Alsing, Head of Fuel – the market price of green carbon dioxide (CO2) molecules will ultimately decide CCS or CCU for a given project.
In the former, Microsoft has committed to purchase several million tonnes of biogenic carbon removal while the Danish Energy Agency has committed to co-funding. In the latter, a shipping major has committed to an offtake for the 50,000 tonnes per annum of eMethanol while the Swedish Energy Agency has committed to co-funding. Worth noting that in both cases, the excess heat generated from the carbon capture and electrolysis processes respectively are integrated for use in district heating at the energy plants.
While the shipping of pellets is a typical panel session at USIPA, new was a focus on the state of the shipping industry itself in terms of reducing emissions. Admittedly, last year several speakers on the shipping panel mentioned various initiatives such as ammonia, dual-fuel methanol, and hard sails for dry bulk vessels but this year’s session had Diane Gilpin, Founder and CEO of Smart Green Shipping, a nautical engineering start-up, detail the principles behind the latter technology and how far it has come. Suffice it to say, prepare to be blown away, schooner rather than later (another poor pun intended).
The shipping of pellets was not the only sustainability perspective USIPA 2023 touched upon. Forest- and feedstock supply chain certification was discussed in a panel with the Sustainable Biomass Program (SBP), Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI), and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the three main certification schemes in the US. It was moderated by Drax Group sustainability director Dr Alan Knight who also suggested that for the next USIPA Conference, have representation from ENGO’s for an educated, and emotionally detached, discussion on (forest) biomass sustainability in a sincere effort to bridge at least part of the communication gap.
Dr Knight is right the discussions would benefit immensely by having a divergent perspective in the panel. Even more so if a representative from those organizations that are bankrolling various anti-biomass campaigns were in the panel too. Ideally, a foundation that made its fortune from the use of office paper…
Technical means and approaches to assessing forest sustainability and transparency that complement certification were also discussed in a dedicated panel while a novel panel consisting of the CSOs of Enviva, Drax, Graanul Invest, Highland Pellets, and CM Biomass discussed how the (industrial pellet) industry needs to collaborate to better communicate its environmental position and license to operate in an ever-changing regulatory and geo-political landscape.
Change at the USIPA top was another item to be found in the small print of the program – having served a year or so as Executive Director, Amandine Muskus has recently moved on to pursue other career options while Elizabeth Woodworth, this year’s emcee, has been appointed USIPA’s Interim Executive Director.
Founder and CEO of Wood & Co., a strategic consultancy in the sustainability space, Elizabeth Woodworth is a well-known and respected figure in the US industrial pellet industry and forest certification. Judging from USIPA members’ reactions, the organization needs to look no further, it is already in very capable hands at a time when sustainability, communication, and perhaps, domestic market opportunities are top of the agenda.
How “interim” Elizabeth Woodworth’s USIPA tenure will be remains to be seen but is of course, ultimately, at her own discretion. How the “promise of net-zero shipping, renewable heat- and power markets, and the biogenic hydrocarbon supply chain”, as put by Thomas Meth, USIPA Board Chairman, and President and CEO of Enviva, will look in October 2024 is anyone’s guess but the USIPA 2024 Conference will be the place to be to find out.
In the meantime, what was said and (over)heard at USIPA 2023 is the subject matter of a coming article.