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Pellet industry in the US southeast could potentially export up to 35 million tonnes

A European consortium, including Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands, has analysed the current and future use and management of forests in the US southeast. Results show that the sustainable export of up to 35 million tonnes of wood pellets is possible and that it coincides with developments in the traditional forestry industry.

Loading tree-length logs onto a truck for transport to a wood processing industry at forest harvest landing site in Georgia. A European consortium, including Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands, has analysed the current and future use and management of forests in the US southeast. Results show that the sustainable export of up to 35 million tonnes of wood pellets is possible and that it coincides with developments in the traditional forestry industry.

The research was conducted as part of BioTrade2020plus, a completed EU co-funded project intended to develop guidelines for a sustainable bioenergy market in Europe. The results have been presented in a paper “Sourcing overseas biomass for EU ambitions: assessing net sustainable export potential from various sourcing countries“, published in the March/April 2019 edition of the journal Biofuels, Bioproducts and Biorefining. 

Spanning across twelve states, the US southeast is characterised by a very large forest area, around 100 million hectares (ha), that has been under management by foresters for over a century. The region consists of intensive plantations and strict reserves of oak and swamp cypress forests.

Rapid export pellet industry development

The wood pellet industry in this area is growing rapidly ever since 2009, mainly because of the increased export to Europe and Southeast Asia (SEA) servicing energy production in these regions and is thus a commodity in the bioeconomy. All sorts of products, that can replace fossil fuels, plastics, and polyester, can be fabricated from pellets.

At the time of the study, the pellet-industry produced around 14 million tonnes of pellets per annum; five percent of the total production of forest industry products such as sawnwood, paper, panelboards, and veneer produced in the US southeast. Pellet plants emerge in places where the paper industry is declining. The study also looked into how the traditional forestry industry in the region might develop going forward.

Bald cypress in a privately conserved wetland in Georgia.

Bald cypress in a privately conserved wetland in Georgia.

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.

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 housing construction, a large volume of wood of low quality and residuals 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.

On the other hand, with a high demand for wood-based panels such as medium density fibreboard (MDF) and oriented strand board (OSB) it is apparent that less wood feedstock becomes available for the wood pellet industry.

Export potential

On the basis of these data, it becomes clear that the sustainable export potential of pellets from the US southeast is around 35 million tonnes – double the current production.

In the long term (after 2040) this potential is even higher. 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 panelboard industry should be producing less, said Gert-Jan Nabuurs, Professor in European Forests at Wageningen University and Research.

The results are especially sensitive to assumptions about the other sectors of the forestry industry.

A Loblolly pine seedling.

A mechanically planted Loblolly pine seedling in a forest plantation regeneration site in southeast Georgia (GA).

Despite the growth of the pellet industry, the extra growth of the forests remains higher than the harvest. The annual increment is around 360 million m3, 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, ended Gert-Jan Nabuurs.

About BioTrade2020plus

Co-funded under the Intelligent Energy for Europe (IEE) Programme of the European Commission, the BioTrade2020plus project ran from March 2014 to August 2016. Coordinated by the Biomass Department National Renewable Energy Centre (CENER), Spain, the seven partner consortium included Wageningen University and Research, the Netherlands; WIP Renewable Energies, Germany; Utrecht University, Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, the Netherlands; Imperial College London, Centre for Environmental Policy, UK; IINAS – International Institute for Sustainability Analysis and Strategy, Germany and VITO NV, Belgium.

The main aim of the project was to provide guidelines for the development of a European Bioenergy Trade Strategy for 2020 and beyond to ensure that imported biomass feedstock is sustainably sourced and used in an efficient way while avoiding distortion of other markets. This included determining sustainable potentials of lignocellulosic biomass (woodchips, wood pellets, torrefied biomass, and pyrolysis oil) in the main current and future major sourcing regions outside the EU – Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia, Kenya, United States, and Ukraine were studied – and definition and application of sustainability criteria and indicators.

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