Back in Miami Beach, Florida (FL) after two non-starts in 2020 and 2021 on account of COVID-19, this year’s annual USIPA Exporting Pellets conference is the tenth since its debut in New Orleans in 2011. And while it got off to a dramatic and emotional start, it also marks the beginning of a new era both for the (industrial) wood pellet industry and for USIPA.
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Hurricane- or tropical storm Ian that ultimately lambasted the southwestern part of Florida just days before the conference started provided the dramatic backdrop. The week or so leading up to the event had organizers, airlines, hotels, and attendees including the undersigned nervously following weather reports on Ian’s anticipated trajectory and landfall severity, while simultaneously studying the small print on various travel- and accommodation bookings.
As it transpired Miami Beach was unscathed which unfortunately cannot be said for those in Florida (and elsewhere) who lost loved ones, homes, businesses, or livelihoods on account of Hurricane Ian.
While Miami Beach remained open for business, it was not immediately self-evident that the conference could or should take place or that one should participate if it did – after all, is it morally or ethically justifiable to confer at Miami Beach, perhaps one of the most iconic “sunshine holiday” destinations in the US when part of the state has just been devastated?
Yes, I believe that it is justifiable, and precisely for that reason. I, and I’m sure that most of the attendees, had the luxury of being able to bear any losses a last-minute cancellation would have meant. However, Miami Beach lives off tourism. Keeping restaurants, hotels, conference venues, and other hospitality suppliers busy, especially now post-COVID-19, generates much-needed tax dollars. Dollars that will come to those affected by Ian directly and indirectly.
Hurricane Ian also provided a renewed sense of urgency and a reminder of the purpose of USIPA, its members, the clients of its members, and everyone else in the bioenergy and renewable energy space, a point made by USIPA Board Chairman Thomas Meth, President, and co-founder of Enviva Inc, the world’s largest wood pellet producer, in the traditional opening “state of the industry” address that he held on October 2, 2022.
Amongst other things, Thomas Meth, who incidentally was hot on the heels of Enviva’s latest “official” pellet plant opening highlighted the wider role of “sustainably sourced biomass”, alluding (assumably) to the recently announced agreement between Enviva and Alder Fuels, which was evidenced by the conference program itself and corroborated by the diverse professional background among the 308 attendees.
More on that at a later date but for the moment suffice to say that USIPA’s annual conference has evolved as the industry itself has grown and matured. Seen over the twelve years that USIPA has existed, it is a truly remarkable development, and as many members in the room testified during the session, down to the unrelenting grind and glass half full “we’ll find a way” attitude of one man and subsequently his team – USIPA’s former Executive Director Seth Ginther.
Yes, former Executive Director – Seth Ginther had the misfortune to suffer a sudden and serious medical condition in late 2021 that has left him with a far more important task ahead, the road to recovery. A much more arduous one compared to respectfully defrocking ENGOs and tackling sensationalist journalists, making sense to MEPs and policymakers, coaxing and chastising members to do better in earning their license to operate, and by all accounts, with a large measure of eloquent wit and dashing grace.
Although my relationship with Seth Ginther is perhaps best described as “superficially professional”, our paths cross from time to time, and we know of each other and what we do, the above is my personal “superficial take” on Seth Ginther. Therefore, it was all the more moving to see and hear just how much Seth Ginther means to so many in their professional and personal lives as they paid tribute to him.
It is often said that the true measure of a person – the appreciation of his/her lifetime deeds and personal impact on others – is best seen at their funeral. Thankfully, Seth Ginther is very much alive, and was present together with support from his immediate family to receive a newly incorporated “Life-Time Achievement Award”, in recognition, appreciation, and honor of his achievements for the industry – thus far I might add.
I do not recall ever having witnessed such a genuine outpouring of heartfelt personal and sincere professional appreciation and gratitude at any industry association gathering before. And I’ve been to plenty over the last three decades. As an industry observer from across the pond, it was a true privilege, and very heartening, to bear witness to this.
It adds credence to an entirely subjective observation, time-nurtured with confirmation bias. That, generally speaking, people active in the wider nature-based system-chains by choice – be it farmers, forest owners, sawmills, ethanol plants, pellet mills, etc – care. They care about the environment they operate in, and they care about each other, even though they may be cut-throat competitors in the marketplace. Furthermore, people that have once started a career in a “green” sector, typically stay within it albeit change positions, vocations, and organizations – myself included.
To my mind, the rationale is straight-forward enough – an innate desire to remain grounded, working hands-on or in close proximity with “natural” products that make the (urban) world a better place to live, coupled with a true understanding of economics, that is, housekeeping with limited or indeed constrained resources, and agreed upon rules of engagement.
The distinction “by choice” is recognition that sadly still in 2022, a shockingly large percentage of the global population lives in abject poverty or worse. For the rural impoverished, a failed crop or spoiled harvest could mean facing imminent famine. Very, very few people make an active choice to enter and live in the vicious cycle of poverty. Many of the global rural poor and marginalized have very little or no choice other than try and survive hand to mouth on what little can be grown or harvested not to mention being frontline to the effects and consequences of global warming and climate change.
The “by-choice” rural world, the “back of beyond in the middle of nowhere” is a place where folks derive a living off the land producing products to sustain themselves and those that live in the sprawling concrete jungle. They seem better equipped to understand the value of concepts such as long-term multi-generational thinking and investment, conservation, biodiversity, sustainable intensification, and “coopertition”.
Unfortunately, the majority of the global population lives in an increasingly expanding urbanized world, steadily year-on-year losing touch with the natural cycles, rhythms, and contextual complexities of nature, and rural life. This, I would contend, is one underlying reason why binary anti-biomass argumentation wins public and political sentiment.
Moving on by extending sincere non-superficial wishes to Seth Ginther for a speedy and full recovery, the obvious question remains – who would be capable (and willing) to take over for the next unchartered leg of the journey for USIPA? For the record, it should be mentioned that both Jessica Marcus, who has since transferred to Drax, and Taylor Fitts have served admirably in the interim keeping USIPA ticking over.
Following Seth’s award tribute, Amandine Muskus was introduced as the new Executive Director. With her academic background, professional experience, personality, and track record, I dare suggest that USIPA has secured a most capable person indeed at this crucial time. Not only to shoulder and build on the incredible momentum that Seth Ginther has generated but further develop USIPA as it enters its “teenage years” with new challenges and issues trailblazing a legacy of her own.
It would of course be wholly inappropriate, irrelevant, and unfair to both parties to make any attempt at a speculatory comparison of Amandine Muskus’ potential with Seth Ginther’s legacy. Instead, October 2023 at the next USIPA conference would be a good time to take an initial stocktaking.
In the meantime, it is time to wrap up an unprecedented USIPA opening day and spend some extra dollars on a late evening (early morning) meal before getting some shuteye for the exciting days ahead. It is already a watershed USIPA event regardless of what comes next.