Tag: biomass energy

Forestry 4.0

Around the world industries are undergoing profound change. The phrase ‘Industry 4.0’ describes this emerging era when the combination of data and automation is transforming long-established practices and business models.

Autonomous cars are perhaps one of most widely-known examples of ‘smart’ technology slowly inching towards daily life, but they are far from the only example. There is almost no sector untouched by this oncoming digital disruption – even industries as old as forestry are being transformed.

From smart and self-driving vehicles to data-crunching drones, Forestry 4.0 is ushering in a new era for efficient and sustainable forest management.

Drones and data

If the first industrial revolution was powered by steam, the fourth is being powered by data. Collecting information on every aspect of a process allows smart devices and machines to cut out inefficiencies and optimise a task.

In forestry, capturing and utilising huge amounts of data can build a better understanding of the land and trees that make up forests. One of the best ways to gather this data from wide, complex landscapes is through aerial imaging.

Satellites have long been used to monitor the changing nature of the world’s terrain and in 2021, the European Space Agency plans to use radar in orbit to weigh and monitor the weight of earth’s forests. But with the rise of drones, aerial imagining technology is becoming more widely accessible. Now even small-scale farmers and foresters can take a birds-eye view of their land.

Oxford-based company BioCarbon Engineering focuses on replanting areas of forests. It utilises drone technology to scan environments and identify features such as obstacles and terrain types which it uses to design and optimise planting patterns.

A drone then follows this path roughly three to six feet off the ground, shooting biodegradable seed pods into the ground every six seconds along the way. BioCarbon claims this approach can allow it to plant as many as 100,000 trees in a single day.

Gathering data on the health of working forests doesn’t necessarily require cutting-edge equipment either. In the smartphone era, any forestry professional now has the computing power in their pocket to capture detailed information about a forest’s condition.

Mobile app MOTI was designed by researchers at the School of Agricultural, Forest and Food Sciences at the Bern University of Applied Sciences in Switzerland. It allows users to scan an area of forest with a phone’s camera and receive calculated-estimates on variables such as trees per hectare, tree heights and the basal area (land occupied by tree trunks).

Automating the harvest

Capturing data from forests can play a huge part in developing a better understanding of the land, terrain and trees of working forests, which leads to better decision making for healthier forests, including how and when to harvest and thin. But the equipment and technology carrying out these tasks on the ground are also undergoing smart-tech transformations.

Self-driving and electric vehicles are expected to disrupt multiple industries, including forestry. Swedish startup Einride, recently unveiled a driverless, fully electric truck that can haul as much as 16-tonnes of lumber and is specially designed for off-road, often unmapped, terrain.

There are some pieces of equipment, however, that will be harder to fully automate – for example, harvesters, which are used to fell and remove trees. Their long, digger-like arm normally features a head consisting of a chainsaw, claw-grips and rollers all in one, which are controlled from the vehicle’s cab.

Even as image recognition and sensors improve, automating these types of machines entirely is hugely challenging. An ideal use of artificial intelligence (AI) would be enabling a harvester to identify trees of a particular age or species to remove as part of thinning, for example, without disturbing the rest of the forest. However, trees of the same species and age can differ from each other depending on factors such as regional climates, soil and even lighting at the time of analysis.

This makes programming a machine to harvest a specific species and age of tree is very difficult. Nevertheless, innovation such as intelligent boom control – as John Deere is exploring – can help human operators automate movements and make harvesting safer and more efficient.

Forestry has always changed as technology has advanced – from the invention of the axe to the incorporation of ecology – and the digital revolution is no different. Smart sensors and deeper data will, ultimately, help optimise the lifecycle, biodiversity and health of managed forests.

With thanks to the Institute of Chartered Foresters for inviting us to attend its 2018 National Conference in May – Innovation for Change: New drivers for tomorrow’s forestry.

The 8 biggest things in renewable energy

Powering a whole country is a big task. The equipment that make up power stations and electricity systems are measured in tonnes and miles, and pump gigawatts (GW) of electricity around the country. With the world’s electricity increasingly coming from renewables, this big thinking is key to powering long-term change.

From taller wind turbines to bigger batteries, these are the massive structures breaking energy records.

Germany’s giant wind turbine and the plan to beat it

As wind power becomes ever more prevalent, one of the key questions that needs answering is how to get more out of it. One way is to build taller turbines and longer blades. Putting turbines higher into the air sets them into stronger wind flows, while longer blades increase their generating capacity.

The world’s tallest wind turbines are currently in Gaildorf, Germany and stand at 178 metres with the blades tips reaching 246.5 metres. Built by Max Bögl Wind AG, the onshore turbines house a 3.4 megawatt (MW) generator that can produce around 10.5 gigawatt hours (GWh) per year.

However, turbines continue to grow and GE has announced plans for the Haliade-X turbine, which will ship in 2021. At 259 metres in total the offshore turbine is almost double the height of the London Eye and will spin 106 metre blades, generating 67 GWh per year.

China’s ‘Great Wall of Solar’

China has pumped substantial investment into solar power, including the world’s biggest solar plant in electricity generation and sheer size. Dubbed the ‘Great Wall of Solar’, the Tengger Desert Solar Park has a capacity of more than 1.5 GW and covers 43 km2 of desert.

The next largest, by comparison, is India’s Kurnool Ultra Mega Solar Park, which covers just 24 km2 and generates 1 GW. However, rampant investment by the country means there are several projects in the pipeline that will break the 2 GW mark and will set new records for solar power plants.

Morocco takes solar to new heights

Concentrated solar power (CSP) takes the technology skywards by using thousands of mirrors, known as heliostats, and focusing the sun’s rays towards a central tower. This heats up molten salt within the tower, which is then combined with water to create steam and power a turbine – like in a thermal power plant.

Morocco’s Noor Ouarzazate facility (pictured in the main photo of this article) is home to the world’s tallest CSP towers. At 250 metres tall, 7,400 heliostats beam the sunlight at each tower, which have a capacity of 150 MW and can store molten salt for 7.5 hours. Its record will soon be matched by Israel’s 121 MW Ashalim Solar Thermal Power Station when it begins operating this year.

However, never one to be outdone when it comes to tall structures, Dubai plans to build a 260 metre CSP tower in 2020 as part of the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, which at 700 MW will be the world’s largest single-site CSP facility.

Three Gorges Dam

China’s monster mountain dam

The Three Gorges Dam on China’s Yangtza river might be the world’s most powerful hydropower dam with its massive 22.5 GW capacity, but a different Chinese dam holds the title of the world’s tallest.

Jinping-I Hydropower Station is a 305-metre-tall arch dam on the Yalong River. It sits on the Jinping Bend where the river wraps around the entire Jinping mountain range. The project began in 2005 and was completed with the commissioning of a sixth and final generator in 2014, which brought its total capacity to 3.6 GW.

Itaipu Dam and hydropower station

Brazil and Paraguay’s river arrangement

While it may be tall, at 568 metres-long, Jinping-I is far from the longest. That mantle belongs to the 7,919 metre-long Itaipu Dam and hydropower station that straddles Brazil and Paraguay and has an installed capacity of 14 GW.

The power station is home to 20, 700 MW generators, however, as Brazil’s electricity system runs at 60Hz and Paraguay’s at 50Hz, 10 of the generators run at each frequency.

Biomass domes that could hide the Albert Hall

Using a relatively new material, such as compressed wood pellets as a renewable alternative to coal in large thermal power stations creates new challenges. Biomass ‘ecostore’ domes help tackle storage problems by keeping the materials dry and maintaining the right temperatures and conditions.

Unlike cylindrical, concrete silos, domes also offer greater resistance to hurricanes and extreme weather. This is important in areas such as Louisiana where this low carbon fuel  is stored at the Drax Biomass port facility in 35.7 metre high, 61.6 metre diameter domes before it is shipped to Drax Power Station.

The power station itself is home to four of the world’s largest biomass domes. Each is 50.3 metres high and 63 metres in diameter – enough to hold the Albert Hall, or in Drax’s case 71,000 tonnes of biomass.

South Korean coastline takes the most from the tides

Beginning operation 1966, the Rance Tidal Power Station, in France was the first and largest facility of its kind for 45 years. The power station made use of the 750 metre-long Rance Barrage on France’s northern coast with a 330-metre-long section of it generating electricity through 24, 10 MW turbines.

It was overtaken, however, in 2011 with the opening of the Sihwa Lake Tidal Power Station in South Korea. The facility generates power along a 400-metre section of the 12.7 km Sihwa Lake tidal barrage and generates a maximum of 254 MW through ten 25.4 MW submerged turbines.

The battle to beat Tesla’s giant battery

South Australia has become a battlefield in the race to build the world’s biggest grid scale storage solution. Tesla constructed a 10,000 m2, football pitch-sized 100 MW lithium-ion battery outside of Adelaide at the end of 2017 which is connected to a wind power plant and can independently supply electricity to 30,000 homes for an hour.

However, rival billionaire to Tesla’s Elon Musk, Sanjeev Gupta plans to take on the storage facility with a 140 MW battery to support a new solar-powered steelworks, also in South Australia.

The excitement around battery technology’s potential means the title of world’s biggest will likely swap hands plenty more times over the next decade. This contest won’t just be confined to batteries. As countries increasingly move away from fossil fuels, bigger, wider and taller renewable structures will be needed to power the world. These are the world’s largest renewable structures today, but they probably won’t stay in those positions for long.

6 start-ups, ideas and power plants shaping biomass

Humans have used wood as a source of fuel for over a million years. Modern biomass power, however, is a far cry from human’s early taming of fire and this is down to constant research and innovation. In fact, today it’s one of the most extensively researched areas in energy and environmental studies.

With biomass accounting for 64% of total renewable energy production in the EU in 2015, the development isn’t likely to stop. Ongoing advancements in the field are helping the technology become more sustainable and efficient in reducing emissions.

Here are seven of the projects, businesses, ideas and technologies pushing biomass further into the future:

Torrefaction – supercharging biomass pellets

When it comes to making biomass as efficient as possible it’s all down to each individual pellet. Improving what’s known as the ‘calorific value’ of each pellet increases the overall amount of energy released when they are used in a power station.

One emerging process aiming to improve this is torrefaction, which involves heating biomass to between 250 and 300 degrees Celsius in a low-oxygen environment. This drives out moisture and volatiles from woody feedstocks, straw and other biomass sources before it is turned into a black ‘biocoal’ pellet which has a very high calorific value.

This year, Estonian company Baltania is constructing the first industrial-scale torrefaction plant in the country with the target output of 160,000 tonnes of biocoal pellets per year. If it’s successful, power stations worldwide may be able to get more power from each little pellet.

bio-bean – powered by caffeine

Biofuels don’t just come from forest residues. Every day more than two billion cups of coffee are consumed globally as people get themselves caffeinated for the day ahead. In London alone, this need for daily stimulation results in more than 200,000 tonnes of coffee waste produced every year. More often than not this ends up in landfills.

bio-bean aims to change this by collecting used coffee grounds from cafes, offices and factories and recycling them into biofuels and biochemicals. The company now recycles as much as 50,000 tonnes of coffee grounds annually while one of its products, B20 biodiesel, has been used to power London buses. bio-bean also produces briquettes and pellets, which, like woody biomass, can serve as an alternative to coal.

Biomass gasification – increasing the value of biomass waste

Biogas is often seen as a promising biofuel with fewer emissions than burning fossil fuels or biomass pellets. It’s an area undergoing significant research as it points to another means of creating higher-value products from biomass matter.

The Finnish town of Vaasa is home to the world’s largest gasification plant. The facility is part of a coal plant where co-firing biogas with coal has allowed it to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by as much as 230,000 tonnes per year.

As well as reducing emissions, co-firing allows the power plant to use 25% to 40% less coal and when demand is low in the autumn and spring months, the plant runs entirely on biogas. More than that, the forestry residues which are used to produce the biogas are sourced locally from within 100 km of site.

(As part of our transition away from coal, co-firing biomass with that fossil fuel took place at Drax Power Station from 2003 until full unit conversions became a reality in 2013.)

Lynemouth Power Station – powering the move away from coal

After 44-years, the coal-fired Lynemouth Power Station in Northumberland is the latest UK power producer converting to biomass-fuel. Set for completion this year, the plant will supply 390 MW of low-carbon electricity to the National Grid, enough to power 700,000 homes.

Every new power station conversion poses different challenges as well as the opportunity to develop new solutions, but none are as crucial as the conversion of the materials handling equipment from coal to biomass pellets. While coal can sit in the rain for long periods of time and still be used, biomass must be kept dry with storage conditions constantly monitored and adjusted to prevent sudden combustion.

At Lynemouth the handling of 1.4 million tonnes of biomass annually has required the construction of three, 40-metre high concrete storage silos, as well as extensive conveyor systems to unload and transport biomass around the plant. 

BioTrans – two birds with one stone

Energy and food are both undergoing serious changes to make them more sustainable. Danish startup BioTrans is tackling both challenges by using one of the food industry’s key pain points – wastage – to create energy with its biogas systems.

The company installs systems that collect leftover food from restaurants and canteens and stores it in odour-proof tanks before collecting and turning it into biogas for heating and electricity production. More than just utilising this waste stream, the by-product of the gasification process can also be sold as a fertiliser.

Drax and C-Capture – cutting emissions from the source

Carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) is one of the most important fields in the energy sector today. The technology’s ability to capture CO2 from the electricity generation process and turn it into a revenue source before it can enter the atmosphere means it’s attracting significant investment and research.

Drax is partnering with C-Capture, a company spun out of the University of Leeds’ chemistry department, to trial a new form of CCUS. The pilot scheme will launch in November and aims to capture a tonne of CO2 per day from one of Drax’s biomass units.

C-Capture’s technology could make the process of capturing and storing CO2 less costly and energy intensive. It does this using a specially developed solvent capable of isolating CO2 before being recycled through the system and capturing more.

If the pilot proves successful, the technology could be implemented at an industrial scale, seeing up to 40% of the CO2 in the flue gases from Drax’s biomass units captured and stored. If the technology tested at Drax leads to the construction of a purpose-built carbon capture unit elsewhere, scientists and engineers at C-Capture believe the CO2 captured could exceed 90%.

Back in North Yorkshire, the eventual goal is negative carbon emissions from Drax Power Station – its biomass units already deliver carbon savings of more than 80% compared to when they used coal. And if a new revenue stream can be developed from the sale of the carbon captured then the power produced from biomass at the power station could become even more cost effective.

With thanks to Biomass UK and The European Biomass Association (AEBIOM).

Is biomass demand out of control?

Electricity systems around the world are decarbonising and increasingly switching to renewable power sources. While intermittent sources, such as solar and wind, are the fastest growing types of renewables being installed globally, the reliability and flexibility of biomass and its ability to offer grid stabilisation services such as frequency control and inertia make it an increasingly necessary source of renewable power. According to the International Energy Agency biomass generation is forecast to expand as planned projects come online.

Sustainable wood pellets

A versatile resource

Biomass comes in many different forms.  When looking to assess future demand and use, it is important to recognise benefits that different types of biomass bring. Compressed wood pellets are just one small part of the biomass spectrum, which includes many forms of agricultural and livestock residues, waste and bi-products – much of which is currently discarded or underutilised.

Maximising the use of these wastes and residues provides plenty of scope for expansion of the biomass energy sector around the world. The global installed capacity for biomass generation is expected to reach close to 140 gigawatts (GW) by 2026, which will be fuelled primarily by expansion in Asia using residues from food production and the forestry processing industry.

However, the use of woody biomass can also provide many benefits too, such as supplying a market for thinnings, providing a use for harvesting residues, encouraging better forest management practices and generating increased revenue for forest owners.

How much surplus exists?

In areas like the US South, traditional markets for forest products have declined, whilst forest growth has significantly increased. According to the USDA Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) data, there is an average annual surplus of growth in the US South of more than 176 million cubic metres compared to removals – that’s enough to make around 84 million tonnes of wood pellets a year, from just one supply region.

Of course, not all of this surplus growth could or should be used for bio-energy, much of it is suitable for high value markets like saw-timber or construction and some of it is located on inaccessible or protected sites. However, new and additional markets are essential to maintain the health of the forest resource and to encourage forest owners to retain and maintain their forest assets.

In the current wood pellet supply regions for Europe, Pöyry management consulting has calculated that there is a surplus of low grade wood fibre and residues that could make an additional 140 million tonnes of wood pellets each year.

Wood pellets in context

Sustainable wood pellets for biomass

Compressed wood pellets on a conveyor belt

It is also necessary to look at the global production of all wood products to put wood pellet production into context. In 2016 the global production of industrial roundwood (the raw material used for construction, furniture, paper and other wood products) was 1.87 billion cubic metres, while the global production of wood fuel (used for domestic heating and cooking) was 1.86 billion cubic metres[1]. Only around 1.6% of this feedstock was used to make wood pellets, both for industrial energy and residential heat. The total production of wood pellets in 2016 was 28.4 million tonnes, of which only 45% was used for industrial energy[2].

While Forestry consulting and research firm Forisk predicts demand for industrial wood pellets (those used in electricity generation rather than residential heating) will grow globally at an annual rate of 15% for the next five years, reaching 27.5 megatonnes (Mt) by 2023, they are also clear that this growth, in context, will not impact forest volumes or other markets:

‘The wood pellet industry in the US South is not exploding, it is a tiny component of the overall market. Forest volumes in the South in total will continue to grow for decades no matter what bioenergy markets or housing markets do. The wood pellet sector simply and unequivocally cannot compete economically with US pulp and paper mills (80% of pulpwood demand in South) for raw material on a head-to-head basis[3].’

So, while demand for wood pellets is likely to increase over the next 10 years, this increase will be well within the scope of existing surplus fibre. The question, therefore, is can suppliers keep up with this demand? And can they do this while ensuring it remains sustainable, reliable and renewable?

What’s driving demand?

In the short-term, intelligence firm Hawkins Wright estimates global demand will increase by almost 30% during 2018 to reach 20.4 Mt, while Forisk predicts a smaller jump: an almost 5 Mt increase compared to 2017.

Most of this will continue to come from Europe (73% of global demand by 2021, more than 80% in 2018), where projects such as Lynemouth Power Station’s conversion from coal to biomass, as well as five co-firing units in the Netherlands are all set to come online very soon. While smaller in number, Asia is also developing a growing appetite for biomass and in 2018 demand is forecast to grow by 1.98 Mt.

These estimates might paint a picture of a continually soaring demand, but Forisk’s forecast actually expect this growth to plateau, levelling off around 2023 at 27.5 Mt. Hawkins Wright expects a similar slow down, forecasting manageable growth of under 15% between 2023 and 2026.

Andy Dugan, Forestry Industry Specialist at Drax Group, believes this plateau could come even sooner.

“Current and future forecasts in industrial wood pellet demand are based on a series of planned conversions and projects coming online,” he explains.

“But once these projects are active, demand in Europe will likely plateau around 2021 and then gradually reduce as various EU support schemes for industrial biomass come to an end. Any long term use of biomass is likely to be based on agricultural residues and wastes.”

But even with this expected slowdown, the biomass demand of the near future will be substantially higher than it is right now. So, the question remains, can suppliers meet the need for biomass pellets?

Responding to today’s growing demand

Meeting this growing demand depends on two factors: sufficient raw materials and the production capabilities to turn those materials into biomass pellets.

In today’s market, there’s no shortage of raw materials and low grade fibre. Instead, what could cause challenges is the production of pellets.

Hawkins Wright reports the capacity for global industrial pellet production was roughly 21.4 Mt a year at the end of 2017 and will increase by a further 3 Mt by 2019 as facilities currently under construction reach completion.

It means that to meet even Forisk’s conservative 27.5 Mt prediction by 2023, pellet production needs to increase. However, Dugan points to the three to four years needed to complete pellet facilities and the relatively short period of time financial support programmes will remain in place as something that could lead to a slowdown in new plants coming online. Instead, he says, expansions of existing plants and the increased use of small-scale facilities will become crucial to increasing overall production.

However the biomass market changes and develops, it remains critical that proper regulation is in place, efficiencies are found and that technological innovation continues within the forestry industry so forests are grown and managed sustainably.

As we move into a low-carbon future we know that biomass demand will increase. But for this to be truly beneficial and sustainable we need to ensure we are not only meeting the demand of today but also of tomorrow, the day after tomorrow and beyond.

Discover the steps we take to ensure our wood pellet supply chain is better for our forests, our planet and our future. Visit ForestScope.info. 

[1] Source: FAOSTAT

[2] Source: Hawkins Wright, The Outlook for Wood Pellets, Q4 2017

[3] https://www.forisk.com/blog/2015/10/23/nibbling-on-a-chicken-or-nibbling-on-an-elephant-another-example-of-incomplete-and-misleading-analysis-of-us-forest-sustainability-and-wood-bioenergy-markets/

Collaborating for biodiversity protection and enhancement

Drax Biomass conducts regional risk assessments with extensive reviews of existing public and private datasets to identify high conservation value forests. This regional information is then augmented by county-level Natural Heritage data.

In 2017, Drax Biomass contracted with Nature Serve to package this regional- and county-level data into a format that would facilitate a rapid risk assessment for all in-woods fibre. This operational risk assessment procedure, combined with formal conservation commitments such as the Atchafalaya Basin Keeper agreement, reflect a comprehensive strategy to protect biodiversity.

Drax Biomass is looking forward to actively contributing to regional conservation enhancement efforts in 2018 and beyond.

A partnership formed with the American Forest Foundation (AFF) in 2017 is paving the way. The AFF is a publicly supported not-for-profit organization established to conduct charitable, educational, research and scientific programmes aimed at the responsible use and conservation of renewable resources. Our partnership with the AFF is aimed at improving habitat for at-risk southern wildlife species through active forest management. With open-canopy pine habitat identified as a conservation need, the market that Drax Biomass provides for small-diameter forest thinning material can directly benefit the regional biodiversity.

In addition to efforts around our own facilities, Drax Biomass employees have been contributing to a collaborative effort run by the Sustainable Biomass Program (SBP) to provide better information on how to assess whether or not there are forests with high conservation values in a catchment, and what to do about them. SBP expects to publish the guidance from this workgroup in early 2018.

American Tree Farm

The majority of forestlands in the southern US are privately owned (86%) and two-thirds of these forests are owned by families and individuals.

The American Tree Farm System (ATFS), administered by the American Forest Foundation, was established over 75 years ago to provide support and recognition to these non-corporate landowners who play a key role in forest sustainability.

Today, the 74,000 tree farmers across the US manage approximately 20.5 million acres of forestland.

The programme has evolved into an internationally recognised, third party-verified certification standard endorsed by the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) standards.

The ATFS now provides a means by which family tree farmers can be recognised and rewarded in the marketplace for meeting rigorous sustainability standards analogous to large corporate owners certified to Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) or Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) standard.

The Sustainable Biomass Program

In 2013, Drax co-founded the SBP together with six other energy companies.

SBP builds upon existing forest certification programmes, such as the Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI), Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC). These evidence sustainable forest management practices but do not yet encompass regulatory requirements for reporting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This is a critical gap for biomass generators, who are obligated to report GHG emissions to European regulators.

There is also limited uptake of forest-level certification schemes in some key forest source areas. SBP is working to address these challenges.

SBP certification provides assurance that woody biomass is supplied from legal and sustainable sources and that all regulatory requirements for the users of biomass for energy production are met. The tool is a unique certification scheme designed for woody biomass, mostly in the form of wood pellets and wood chips, used in industrial, large-scale energy production.

SBP certification is achieved via a rigorous assessment of wood pellet and wood chip producers and biomass traders, carried out by independent, third party certification bodies and scrutinised by an independent technical committee.

Active management of forests increases growth and carbon storage

A study on the historical trends in the forest industry of the US South, carried out by supply chain consultancy Forest2Market, and commissioned by Drax Group, the National Alliance of Forest Owners and the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, found that over the last 60 years, as demand for forestry products has increased, the productivity of the area’s forests has increased too. In short, the more we’ve come to use them, the more forests have grown.

A forest is not like a mine – there is not a finite amount of wood in the ground that disappears when it is extracted, never to return. Forests are a renewable resource that can be replanted, improved, and harvested for as long as the land is managed responsibly.

What’s more, landowners have a strong financial incentive to not only maintain their holdings but to improve their productivity – after all, the more of something you have, the more of it you have to sell. It is an economic incentive that works.

Six decades of growth

The Forest2Market report found that increased demand for wood is statistically correlated with more annual tree growth, more wood volume available in the forest, and more timberland.

For example, between 1953 and 2015, tree harvests increased by 57%, largely driven by US economic growth and increased construction. Over the same period, annual wood growth increased by 112%, and inventory increased by 108%. In total, annual growth exceeded annual removals by 38% on average.

Annual forest growth in the US South increased from 193 million cubic metres in 1953 to 408 million cubic metres in 2015. Inventory increased from 4 billion to 8.4 billion cubic metres.

The forest products industry funded private-public research projects to enhance the quality and performance of seedlings and forest management practices to ensure a stable supply of wood. Because of these efforts, landowners saw the value of active management techniques, changing their approach to site preparation, fertilization, weed control, and thinning, and the use of improved planting stock. Healthy demand made it easy for landowners to take a long-term view, investing in more expensive management practices up front for greater returns in the future. And the results were extraordinary: seedlings established in the last 20 years have helped plantations to become nearly four times as productive as they were 50 years ago.

A changing market

Markets for wood have changed over the last two decades, precipitated by decreased demand for writing paper and newsprint, increased demand for absorbent hygiene products and containerboard and increased demand for biomass. These changes in demand have not impacted the way that landowners manage timberland, however. As sawtimber (the largest trees in the forest) remains the most valuable timber crop, it also remains the crop the landowners want to grow. Pulpwood is harvested from the forest only when the forest is being thinned to create optimal conditions for growing sawtimber or when sawtimber is harvested and the forest is being cleared for replanting.

Pellet production has expanded rapidly in the US South, though its overall footprint is still small in comparison to more traditional forest product industries.

In some local wood basins, however, like the one surrounding Bastrop, Louisiana (the location of one of Drax’s US production facilities), the use of biomass to create pellets has filled a gap left by the closure of an 80-year old paper mill. Drax’s decision to locate in this area is integral to supporting forest industry jobs and landowners who carefully consider local demand when deciding whether to continue growing trees.

According to Tracy Leslie, Director of Forest2Market’s biomaterials and sustainability practice, “As history has shown, forests in the US South have benefitted from increased demand for all types of wood. The rise of the pulp and paper industry did not detract from landowner objectives to maximize production of higher value sawtimber nor did it result in a shift in focus to growing only pulpwood. This new demand did, however, provide landowners with important interim and supplemental sources of income. Forest2Market’s research shows that an increase in demand for pellets will have the same effect, incentivizing landowners to grow and re-grow forests, increasing both forest inventory and carbon storage.”

The real threat to forests

Not only does demand for forest products increase the productivity and carbon storage of forests and provide an incentive for landowners to continue growing trees, but it also helps counter factors that irrevocably destroy this natural resource. The real threat to forests in the US is not demand for wood, but urbanisation. Nearly half of all US forestland that converted to another use between 1982 and 2012 was cleared for urban development.

Commercial forestry protects forested lands from development; between 1989 and 1999, just 1% of managed pine plantations in the US South were cleared for non-forest development compared to 3% of naturally-regenerated forest types.

Urbanisation, not the forest products industry, places the most pressure on forests in the US South. Forest2Market’s findings demonstrate that demand associated with healthy timber markets promotes the productivity of forests and mitigates forest loss by encouraging landowners to continue to grow, harvest, and regenerate trees.

Read the full report: Historical Perspective on the Relationship between Demand and Forest Productivity in the US South. An At A Glance version plus an Executive Summary are also available as a separate documents.