Tag: Sustainable Biomass Program (SBP)

Chesapeake catchment area analysis

Photos: Roanoke Rapids area near the North Carolina, Virginia border, courtesy of Enviva.

Increased timberland, increased carbon stored in the forest, robust prices and new markets benefiting forest owners and forest workers, are among the findings of a report by Hood Consulting.

This fourth in a series of catchment area analyses for Drax looks at the area surrounding three pellet plants operated by Enviva: Ahoskie, Northampton and Southampton.

Enviva catchment area in Virginia and North Carolina

Forests and woodlands represent 68% of the total area at just over 5.4 million hectares (ha) with 87% of this area classified as timberland. The area of timberland (actively managed productive forest) has increased by around 89,000 ha since 2010 and there have been some significant changes in forest type.

The overall area of forest has increased and there is no evidence of deforestation occurring.

Land use by area

Since 2000, the total volume of standing timber in the catchment area has increased by 170 million cubic metres (m3). Sixty five percent of this increase has occurred since 2012, indicating a growing/maturing forest resource and an expanding forest area. Most of the increase in volume has been in the saw-timber categories for both pine and hardwood, although the hardwood pulpwood size class has also increased by nearly 10 million m3 since 2012 following a small decline between 2000 and 2012.

Timber inventory by product category

The increased demand from the three Enviva pellet mills, beginning operation in 2012 in the Chesapeake region, appears to have had no negative impact of the accumulation of forest carbon in the growing stock of the region. Since this time, all categories of timber product have increased.

Timber inventory by product category – pre and post-Enviva

This increase in inventory is also reflected in the comparison of average annual growth to removals. The surplus of un-cut growth has increased substantially since 2010 from 4.7 million m3 per year  to 15.9 million m3 p.a. Over this period annual growth has increased by 35.5% whereas removals have decreased by 8.6%.

Annual growth vs. removals and surplus volume

Demand for timber products has fluctuated since 2000. The global financial crisis in 2008-09 impacted all product categories, but particularly pine and hardwood saw-timber where there was a combined drop of over five million tonnes in 2010 compared to 2000. This was a loss of over 20% of total annual demand in the catchment area. Pine saw-timber has now recovered to pre-crisis levels, but hardwood demand has remained low. Hardwood pulpwood demand also declined around this time, with the closure and decline of existing pulp mills in the catchment area. Demand had fallen by one million tonnes p.a. by 2011 prior to the Enviva pellet mills opening. From 2012 the new biomass demand enabled the hardwood pulpwood market to recover to pre-crisis levels with demand in 2018 at almost exactly the same level as in 2000.

Annual demand by product category

This fluctuation in demand is reflected in the average annual stumpage price data shown on the chart below, this is the value that the forest owner gets for each product. The trends are generally as expected, with the exception of the hardwood saw-timber price, which has increased substantially despite a decrease in demand. This is due to supply chain issues, reduced capacity of loggers and access to land.

Average annual stumpage prices

Detailed below is an edited version of the consultant’s review and analysis of key issues in the catchment area.

The full version can be found in the main report.

Is there any evidence that bioenergy demand has caused the following?

Deforestation

No. US Forest Service (USFS) data shows the opposite. The total area of timberland in the Enviva Chesapeake catchment area has increased an estimated 82,818 hectares (+1.8%) since Enviva Pellets Ahoskie commenced full production in 2012.

A change in management practices (rotation lengths, thinnings, conversion from hardwood to pine)?

No / Inconclusive. Changes in management practices have occurred in the catchment area since 2012, but there is little evidence to suggest that bioenergy demand has caused these changes. Conversion of hardwood and mixed pine-hardwood timberland to planted pine timberland has occurred in the catchment area.

Diversion from other markets

No / Inconclusive. Since 2012, pulpwood demand not attributed to bioenergy has decreased 19%; however, this decrease is largely attributed to decreased demand from the pulp/paper sector. Also, demand for softwood and hardwood sawlogs have increased an estimated 14% and 7%, respectively, since 2012.

An unexpected increase in wood prices

No / Inconclusive. The increase in hardwood biomass demand coincided with price increases of 10-24% for delivered hardwood pulpwood. These price increases were likely linked to a combination of both supply chain issues (shortage of local loggers following pulp/paper mill closures in the region) and elevated prices offered by Enviva to ensure guaranteed wood supply for the first several years of operation, as prices for delivered hardwood pulpwood and hardwood chips proceeded to decline 16% and 9%, respectively, from 2014 to2017 once the market stabilised.

Since 2014, prices for pine products have held flat even though softwood raw material purchases (demand) by Enviva have more than doubled. In this catchment area, changes in pine pulpwood and pine chip prices are largely driven by demand attributed to the pulp/paper sector.

A reduction in growing stock timber

No. Total growing stock inventory in the catchment area increased 19% from 2012 through 2018. Over this period, inventories increased as follows for each of the five major timber products: +33% for pine sawtimber, +23% for pine chip-n-saw, +14% for pine pulpwood, +12% for hardwood sawtimber, and +14% for hardwood pulpwood.

The increase in timber inventory can be linked to a combination of increased forest area (additional hectares = additional inventory) and annual harvest levels below the sustainable yield capacity of the catchment area forest (i.e. annual growth has continued to exceed annual removals, resulting in increased inventory levels).

A reduction in the sequestration rate of carbon

No. US Forest Service data shows the average annual growth rate of growing stock timber has increased slightly since 2012. Increased timber growth rates/carbon sequestration rates can be linked to a combination of changes in species composition and silvicultural practices.

Softwood (pine) grows at a much quicker rate compared to hardwood species, and in the Enviva Chesapeake catchment area, pine timberland area increased from 43.6% of total timberland area in 2011 to 46.0% in 2018. Also, improvements in silviculture have continued to enhance growth and overall productivity. Together, these factors help explain how average per hectare volume growth increased from 5.9 m3 in 2011 to 7.7 m3 in 2018.

An increase in harvesting above the sustainable yield capacity of the forest area

No. In 2018, the latest available, growth-to-removals ratio for pine and hardwood pulpwood, the timber products utilised by bioenergy, equalled 2.49 and 2.76, respectively (a value greater than 1.0 indicates sustainable harvest levels). Even with the increased harvesting required to satisfy bioenergy demand, harvest levels remain well below the sustainable yield capacity of the catchment forest area.

What has been the impact of bioenergy demand on?

Timber growing stock inventory

Neutral. Total wood demand increased an estimated 14% from 2012-2018, and much of that increase can be attributed to increased demand from bioenergy. In this catchment area, inventories are so substantial that increases in demand from bioenergy, as well as from other sources, have not been great enough to offset annual timber growth. Total growing stock inventory has continued to increase – an average of 2.9% per year since Enviva first entered this market in 2012.

Timber growth rates

Neutral. Timber growth rates have increased for pine sawtimber, pine chip-n-saw, pine pulpwood, and hardwood pulpwood since 2012; hardwood sawtimber growth rates have declined slightly. Evidence suggests these overall increases in growth rates are linked to changes in age class distribution (i.e. a younger forest), not due to changes in bioenergy demand

Forest area

Positive / Neutral. Total forest (timberland) area in the catchment area increased nearly 83,000 hectares (+1.8%) from 2012 through 2018, the latest available. Our analysis of biomass demand and forest area found a strong positive correlation between these two variables but also a moderately strong correlation between softwood sawlog demand and forest area.

Wood prices

Neutral / Negative. The additional wood demand placed on this market by Enviva from 2012-2014 coincided with a 19% increase in delivered pine pulpwood price and a 24% increase in delivered hardwood pulpwood price. Pine and hardwood chip prices also increased 10-11% over this period. Analysis found evidence that increases in hardwood pulpwood and hardwood chip prices can be linked to increases in total hardwood pulpwood demand. However, given that hardwood bioenergy demand has accounted for over 75% of total hardwood pulpwood demand in the catchment area since 2014, it is reasonable to conclude that hardwood pulpwood demand attributed to bioenergy has had some level of impact on delivered hardwood pulpwood and hardwood chip prices.

Markets for solid wood products

Positive. In the Enviva Chesapeake catchment area, demand for softwood and hardwood sawlogs used to produce lumber and other solid wood products increased 15% and 9%, respectively, from 2012-2018. A by-product of the sawmilling process are sawmill residuals – a material utilied by Enviva’s three mills to produce wood pellets. With the increased production of both softwood and hardwood lumber, so too has come an increase in sawmill residuals, some of which has been purchased/consumed by Enviva.

Not only has Enviva benefited from the greater availability of this by-product, but lumber producers have also benefited, as Enviva’s three mills have provided an additional outlet for these producers and their by-products.

Forest landowners

Positive. Increased demand attributed to bioenergy has been a positive for forest landowners in the Chesapeake catchment area. Not only has bioenergy provided an additional outlet for pulpwood (particularly hardwood pulpwood), but the increase in pulpwood prices as a result of an overall increase in both softwood and hardwood pulpwood demand has transferred through to landowners (improved compensation).

Specifically, since 2013 (the first year all three Enviva pellet mills were operating), hardwood pulpwood stumpage price – the price paid to landowners – has averaged roughly $5.60 per ton in the Chesapeake catchment area. This represents a 47% increase over the approximately $3.80 per ton averaged by hardwood pulpwood stumpage in the catchment area over the 10 years prior (2003-2012). Similarly, pine pulpwood stumpage price has averaged $12.95 per ton in the catchment area since 2013, up 67% from the 2003-2012 average of $7.75 per ton.

Read the full report: Catchment Area Analysis of Forest Management and Market Trends: Enviva Pellets Ahoskie, Enviva Pellets Northampton, Enviva Pellets Southampton (UK metric version). Read the Drax forestry team’s blog ‘Changing forest structure in Virginia and North Carolina. Explore Enviva’s supply chain via Track & Trace. This is part of a series of catchment area analyses around the forest biomass pellet plants supplying Drax Power Station with renewable fuel. Others in the series include: Georgia Mill, Estonia, Latvia, Morehouse Bioenergy and Amite Bioenergy.

How biomass wood pellet mills can help landowners grow healthy forests

Working Forests US South

International Paper’s pulp and paper mill, located in the Morehouse parish of Louisiana, had been in operation since 1927 and was once the largest employer in the area. However, as a result of the global recession of 2008, the company was forced to lay off over 550 employees and shut the facility. Other mills in the area have also reduced production including Georgia Pacific which let go around 530 people at its Crossett, Arkansas plant 18 miles to the north of Morehouse in 2019.

For an area dominated by forests, such as Northern Louisiana and Southern Arkansas, this decline in traditional markets came as a serious blow. It’s a region where a healthy market for wood products is vital for the local economy and, in turn, the health of the region’s forests. Luckily other wood product manufacturers and industries have since began to fill the gap.

Engineers in front of wood pellet storage silos at Drax's Morehouse BioEnergy biomass manufacturing facility in northern Louisiana

Engineers in front of wood pellet storage silos at Drax’s Morehouse BioEnergy biomass manufacturing facility in northern Louisiana

Drax Biomass has opened a mill in Morehouse parish that uses some of the the low-grade wood previously used to supply the paper industry to produce compressed wood pellets, which are used to generate renewable electricity in the UK.

Commissioned in 2015, the plant employs 74 people and can produce as much as 525,000 metric tonnes of biomass pellets a year. This makes it an important facility for local employment and the wood market in the region. However, to ensure it is positively contributing to the area and its environment, the demand for wood must be sustainably managed.

Morehouse BioEnergy sources low-grade wood from a catchment area that covers a 60-mile radius and includes 18 counties in Arkansas and four in Louisiana.

As Drax Biomass doesn’t own any of the forests it sources wood products from, it regularly examines the environmental impact of its pellet mills on the forests and markets in which it operates. The aim is to ensure the biomass used by Drax to generate 12% of Great Britain’s renewable electricity is sustainably sourced and does not contribute to deforestation or other negative climate and environment impacts.

A new report by forestry research and consulting firm Forisk evaluates the impact of biomass pellet demand from Morehouse BioEnergy on the forests and wood markets within the mill’s catchment area.

Map of pulpwood-using mills near Morehouse timber market

Map of pulpwood-using mills near Morehouse timber market

It found that biomass demand in the region does not contribute to deforestation, nor increase forest harvesting above a sustainable level. Overall, growth of the region’s pine timberland, which supplies Morehouse BioEnergy, continues to exceed removals, pointing to expanding forest carbon and wood inventory.

Annual growth compared to harvesting removals

Annual growth compared to harvesting removals

Growing forests and increasing timber stocks

The study focuses on timberland – working forests – in the plant’s sourcing area, which the US Forestry Service categorises as productive land capable of providing timber on an industrial scale.

The timberland here is made up of 63% softwood trees, which includes pines, and 37% hardwoods such as oak. Pellet manufacturing as a whole (including other pellet producers in the area), accounts for only 6% of the demand for wood products in the region. Of that, Morehouse BioEnergy contributes to 4% of total pellet demand.

Total area of timberland

Total area of timberland

Lumber – such as sawtimber – makes up the bulk of demand for wood products, accounting for 46% of total demand, largely as a result of its high market value and landowners’ aims to extract maximum revenue from their pine stands.

However, the less valuable wood – parts of trees that are misshapen, too short or thin to be used for lumber – can be sold at a lower price to biomass pellet mills. This wood might previously have been sold to paper and pulp mills exclusively, but with International Paper’s departure, Morehouse BioEnergy now fills a part of that role.

Total volume of growing stock on timberland

Total volume of growing stock on timberland

Maintaining healthy markets for both high and low-value wood is key to enabling landowners to reforest areas once they have been harvested in the knowledge it will provide a valuable return in the future. Ultimately, however, the way forests are maintained depends on the individual landowners and how they want to use their land.

The advantages of corporate ownership

Morehouse BioEnergy’s catchment area covers 28,000 square kilometres of timberland, within which 96% of the timber is privately owned. While some of that is owned by families with small patches of productive land, 54% is held by corporate owners. This includes businesses such as real estate investment trusts (REITs) and timber investment management organisations (TIMOs), which advise institutional investors on how to manage their forest assets.

This high percentage of corporate ownership influences forest management and replanting, as owners look to maximise the value of forests and seek to continue to generate returns from their land.

“In general, corporate owners are spending more money on silviculture and actively managing their timber stands,” explains Forisk Consulting Partner Amanda Lang. “They are investing more in fertiliser, their seedlings and harvest control on pine stands, because that leads to larger trees of a higher quality and more profit in the long run.” This is reflected in the higher growth rates found in the private sector, leading to faster rates of carbon sequestration.

Annual growth per hectare by owner type

Annual growth per hectare by owner type

Smaller private landowners, meanwhile, may have other objectives for their land like recreation and hunting, in addition to timber income. As a result, some owners may be less inclined to intensively manage their timber stands, forgoing fertilisation and competition control (due to cost) and might harvest on a less regular basis. Although these landowners may not be maximising the productivity of their timber resource to the same degree corporate owners do, their unique management often contribute to greater diversity on the landscape.

Demand and forest health

In 2018 the annual average price for a metric tonne of pine sawtimber in Morehouse BioEnergy’s catchment area was $25.71, down from a 10-year high of $31.60 in 2010. Similarly, pine pulpwood, from which biomass pellets are made, was valued at $7.75 per metric tonne in 2018, down from a 10-year high of $13 in 2010.

These low wood prices have caused many landowners to delay harvesting forests in hopes for a more lucrative wood price. As a result, pine timber inventories have grown across Morehouse BioEnergy’s catchment area. In 2010 the US Forest Service counted more than 167 million metric tonnes of pine inventory. By 2018 this had increased by more than 35% to reach 226 million.

Morehouse BioEnergy market historic stumpage prices, $/metric tonne

Morehouse BioEnergy market historic stumpage prices, $/metric tonne

The report suggests this price slump is an ongoing result of the 2008 recession, which greatly affected US house construction – one of the primary uses of sawtimber and many other types of wood products in the US. Some areas have already seen sawtimber prices increase as they recover from the recession, however, the report suggests this is not spread evenly on a national level.

The inventory overhang in Morehouse BioEnergy’s catchment area is expected to begin reversing in 2024 or 2025, as Lang explains: “We expect inventories to increase for a few more years and then start to decline. That said, inventories will remain higher than pre-recession levels.”

While high inventories suggest an abundant resource, lower inventory volumes are not indicative of declining or unhealthy forests. Rather, they can point to younger, growing forests that have recently been replanted, which will later grow to higher inventory volumes as they mature. Both suggest a healthy forestry industry in which landowners continue to reinvest in forests.

Overall, the analysis of the region points to healthy, growing forests and, importantly, a sustainable industry from which Drax can responsibly source biomass pellets. Ensuring the biomass used at Drax Power Station is sustainably sourced is crucial to its generation of renewable, carbon-neutral electricity, and in turn laying the path to negative emissions.

Read the full report: Morehouse, Louisiana Catchment Area Analysis. A short summary of its analysis and conclusions, written by our forestry team, can be read here. Explore every delivery of wood to Morehouse BioEnergy using our ForestScope data transparency tool.

Letter from Will Gardiner to the Independent Advisory Board on Sustainable Biomass

Dear John, 

Thank you for your letter of the 9 January, detailing the findings and recommendations from the first meeting of the Independent Advisory Board on Sustainable Biomass.

I want to begin by reiterating how important the work of the IAB is to Drax’s purpose and ambition. As you know, we recently announced our intention to become the world’s first carbon negative company by 2030 by scaling up our pioneering biomass with CCS (BECCS) pilot project. This ambition will only be realised if the biomass we use makes a positive contribution to our climate, the environment and the communities in which we operate. To that end, both you and the IAB will play a vital role by guiding us on our sourcing choices and challenging us to be as sustainable and transparent as we can be.

I enjoyed meeting with the IAB and hearing your conclusions from the first meeting. I am also pleased to hear from my team that the longer discussions were useful and constructive. Please pass on my thanks to all the members of the IAB for their time and consideration.

In particular, I am grateful for their consideration of our new sustainable biomass sourcing policy and the insight and recommendations that were given. I am pleased to hear that you agree our policy is an accurate representation of the criteria laid down in the Forest Research report.

I agree that a key topic for us to explore is how science can be further developed with regards the use of small, early thinnings and small roundwood. I also agree that understanding the counter factuals in the usage of wood that has come to us is important. This is an area we have, and continue to, explore, and I would refer the IAB to a report we have published subsequent to the meeting, “Catchment Area Analysis of Forest Management and Market Trends (2019)”– which contains an independent analysis of the impact of our sourcing at our Amite pellet mill in Mississippi. The team look forward to discussing this with you at a future meeting and receiving your input to shape the next phases of this work.

I also agree the need to continuously improve our sustainability policy and seek to update it as new findings come to light, as well as ensure that the current policy is embedded into our operations. For that reason, our policy will be kept under regular review to accommodate changes in science and new evidence as it emerges. We have also committed to advancing scientific research in the areas applicable to our operations through partnerships with academic institutions and direct support for academic research.

With regards your suggestion of a restatement of the academic evidence on biomass sustainability, we shall give this interesting approach due consideration. I do believe that better alignment through a shared understanding of the evidence among the academic community, environmental groups, policy makers and industry would be a welcome development and would be grateful to the IAB for its further consideration of how this might be achieved.

I will also raise your considerations regarding the Sustainable Biomass Program (SPB) in my position a member of the SPB Board. You are correct that our new policy goes beyond SBP, and so an important work programme for us is how we demonstrate we are meeting the new policy.

Lastly, I welcome the addition of two interim telephone calls which will help to keep momentum between the half yearly meetings and will support us as we develop our policy, research and implementation projects further. Thank you for this commitment.

As the work of the IAB progresses, I look forward to hearing how you believe Drax can best build the evidence required to demonstrate that we are sourcing according to the best available science. As the world’s largest biomass consumer it is important that we lead by example. This means not only having a world leading biomass sustainability policy in place, but also the data and evidence available to give all our stakeholders the confidence that we are fulfilling our purpose of enabling a zero carbon, lower cost energy future.

Thank you once again for your participation and expertise.

Yours,

 

 

 

 

 

Will Gardiner

Group CEO

View/download the PDF version here

How a Mississippi wood pellet mill supports healthy forests and rural economies

Pine saplings in Weyerhaeuser tree nursery, Hazlehurst, Mississippi

The landscape of the Amite catchment area in Mississippi is dense with forests. They cover 84% of the area and play a crucial role in the local economy and the lives of the local population.

Amite BioEnergy catchment area – land area distribution by land classification & use (2017)

Amite BioEnergy catchment area – land area distribution by land classification & use (2017)

On the state’s western border with Louisiana, near the town of Gloster, Drax’s Amite BioEnergy pellet mill is an important part of this local economy, providing employment and creating a market for low-grade wood.

Amite produces half-a-million metric tonnes of wood pellets annually that not only benefit the surrounding area, but also make a positive impact in the UK, providing a renewable, flexible low carbon source of power that could soon enable carbon negative electricity generation.

However, this is only possible if the pellets are sourced from healthy and responsibly managed forests. That’s why it’s essential for Drax to regularly examine the environmental impact of the pellet mills and their catchment areas to, ultimately, ensure the wood is sustainably sourced and never contributes to deforestation or other negative climate and environment impacts.

In the first of a series of reports evaluating the areas Drax sources wood from, Hood Consulting has looked at the impact of Amite on its surrounding region. The scope of the analysis had to be objective and impartial, using only credible data sources and references. The specific aim was to evaluate the trends occurring in the forestry sector and to determine what impact the pellet mill may have had in influencing those trends, positively or negatively. This included the impact of harvesting levels, carbon stock and sequestration rate, wood prices and the production of all wood products.

The report highlights the positive role that the Amite plant has had in the region, supporting the health of western Mississippi’s forests and its economy.

Woodchip pile at Amite BioEnergy (2017)

Woodchip pile at Amite BioEnergy (2017)

The landscape of the Amite BioEnergy wood pellet plant 

Amite BioEnergy’s catchment area – the working forest land from which it has sourced wood fibre since it began operating – stretches roughly 6,600 square kilometres (km2) across 11 counties – nine in Mississippi and two in Louisiana.

Map showing Amite BioEnergy catchment area boundary

Amite BioEnergy catchment area boundary

US Forest Service data shows that since 2014, when Amite began production, total timberland in this catchment area has in fact increased by more than 5,200 hectares (52 million m2).

An increase in market demand for wood products, particularly for sawtimber, can be one of the key drivers for encouraging forest owners to plant more trees, retain their existing forest or more actively manage their forests to increase production.

Markets for low grade wood, like the Amite facility, are essential for enabling forest owners to thin their crops and generate increased revenue as a by-product of producing more saw-timber.

Around 30% of the annual timber growth in the region is pine pulpwood, a lower-value wood which is the primary source of raw material used at Amite. More than 60% of the growth is what is known as sawtimber – high-value wood used as construction lumber or furniture, or chip n saw (also used for construction and furniture).

Amite BioEnergy catchment area – net growth of growing stock timber by major timber product. Source: USDA – US Forest Service.

Amite BioEnergy catchment area – net growth of growing stock timber by major timber product. Source: USDA – US Forest Service.

The analysis shows that harvesting levels in each product category are substantially lower than the annual growth (as shown in the table below). This means that every year a surplus of growth remains in the forest as stored carbon.

Amite BioEnergy catchment area – harvest removals by major timber product (2017). Source: USDA – US Forest Service.

Amite BioEnergy catchment area – harvest removals by major timber product (2017). Source: USDA – US Forest Service.

In 2017, total timber growth was 5.11 million m3 while removals totalled 2.41 million m3 – less than half of annual growth. Of that figure, the pine pulpwood used to make biomass pellets grew by 1.52 million m3 while just 850 thousand m3  was removed.

The table below shows the ratio of removals to growth in the pine forests around Amite. A ratio of 1 is commonly considered to be the threshold for sustainable harvesting levels, in this catchment area the ratio is more than double that amount, meaning that there is still a substantial surplus of annual growth that has not been harvested.

Amite BioEnergy catchment area – annual growth, removals & growth-to-removal ratios by major timber product (2017). Source: USDA – US Forest Service.

Amite BioEnergy catchment area – annual growth, removals & growth-to-removal ratios by major timber product (2017). Source: USDA – US Forest Service.

Between 2010 and 2017 the total stock of wood fibre (or carbon) growing in the forests around Amite increased by more than 11 million m3. This is despite a substantial increase in harvesting demand for pulpwood.

Timber inventory by major timber product (2010-2017); projected values (2018)

Timber inventory by major timber product (2010-2017); projected values (2018)

The economic argument for sustainability

The timberland of the Amite BioEnergy catchment area is 85% privately owned. Among the tens of thousands of smaller private landowners are larger landowners like forestry business Weyerhaeuser; companies that manage forest land on behalf of investors like pension funds; and private families. For these private owners, as long as there are healthy markets for forest products forests have an economic value. Without these markets some owners may choose to convert their forest to other land uses (e.g. for urban development or agriculture).

More than a billion tree saplings have been grown at Weyerhaeuser’s Pearl River Nursery in Mississippi. The facility supplies these young trees to be planted in the Amite catchment area and across the US South.

Strong markets lead to increased investment in better management (e.g. improved seedlings, more weeding or fertilisation, thinning and selecting the best trees for future saw-timber production).

“Thinning pulpwood is part of the forest management process,” explains Dr Harrison Hood, Forest Economist and Principal at Hood Consulting. “Typically, with pine you plant 500 to 700 trees per acre. That density helps the trees grow straight up rather than outwards.”

But once the trees begin to grow beyond a certain point, they can crowd one another, and some trees will be starved of water, nutrients and sunlight. It is therefore essential to fell some trees to allow the others to grow to full maturity – a process known as thinning.

“At final harvest, you’ve got about 100 trees per acre,” continues Dr Hood. “You remove the pulpwood or the poor-quality trees to allow the higher-quality trees to continue to grow.”

These thinnings have typically been used as pulpwood to make things like paper, but with the slight decline of this industry over the last few decades there’s been a need to find new markets for it. Paper production in the Amite catchment area has declined since 2010 (as shown on the chart on the right), whilst demand for saw-timber (lumber) has been increasing following the economic recovery after the recession of 2008.

Producing saw-timber, without a market for thinnings and low-grade wood is a challenge. The arrival of a biomass market in the area has created a renewed demand – something that is even more important at the current time, when there is an abundance of forest, but wood prices are flat or declining slightly.

“Saw-timber prices haven’t moved much over the last six to eight years,” explains Dr Hood. “They’ve been flat because there’s so much wood out there that there’s not enough demand to eat away at the supply.”

Pulpwood consumers such as Amite BioEnergy create demand for pulpwood from thinning, allowing landowners to continue managing their forests while waiting for the higher value markets to recover. Revenue from pulpwood helps to support forest owners, particularly when saw-timber prices are weak.

Amite BioEnergy catchment area mill map (2019)

Amite BioEnergy catchment area mill map (2019)

“There’s so much pulpwood out there,” says Dr Hood. “You need a buyer for pulpwood to allow forests to grow and mature into a higher product class and to keep growing healthy forests.”

The picture of the overall forest in the catchment area is of healthy growth and, crucially, a sustainable environment from which Drax can responsibly source biomass pellets for the foreseeable future.

Read the full report: Catchment Area Analysis of Forest Management and Market Trends: Amite BioEnergy (UK metric version). A short summary of its analysis and conclusions, written by our forestry team, can be read hereThis is part of a series of catchment area analyses around the forest biomass pellet plants supplying Drax Power Station with renewable fuel. Others in the series include: Morehouse BioEnergy.

Amite Bioenergy catchment area analysis

Foresters in working forest, Mississippi

The first of our planned Catchment Area Analysis reports is complete, looking at Amite BioEnergy, our compressed wood pellet manufacturing plant in Mississippi.

The aim of this analysis is to evaluate the trends occurring in the forestry sector around the plant and to determine what impact the pellet mill may have had in influencing those trends, positively or negatively. This includes the impact of increased harvesting levels, changes in carbon stock and sequestration rate, wood prices and the production of all wood products.

Analysis shows a maturing forest resource with a substantial surplus of annual growth; increasing in age and growing stock; increasing production of sawtimber and higher value wood products; stable wood prices and no market displacement.

Key report data

Since 2010 the total growing stock (the amount of wood stored in the forest) around Amite BioEnergy has increased by 11.1 million cubic metres (m3). This is partly due to an increase in the area of Timberland (which increased by more than 5,200 hectares (ha)), but predominantly due to the forest ageing and increasing the average size class (the average tree gets bigger, moving from a small diameter pulpwood tree to a larger sawtimber grade tree).

The chart below shows that the increase in volume is entirely within the private sector, where forests are more actively managed. The public sector has declined in growing stock by 1.5 million m3 whilst the private sector has increased by 12.6 million m3. The continual cycle of thinning, harvesting and replanting in the private forests, helps to keep the growing stock increasing.

Total growing stock volume on timberland, in cubic meters, by ownership group. Source: US Forest Service – FIA

Total growing stock volume on timberland, in cubic meters, by ownership group. Source: US Forest Service – FIA

Harvesting in the catchment area has increased, due to the increased demand from the pellet mill, but this is still substantially lower than average annual growth. The average annual surplus of growth compared to harvesting between 2010 and 2017 has been 3.5 million m3 p.a. with a surplus of 2.7 million m3 in 2017.

Average annual growth and harvest removals of total growing stock timber, in cubic meters, on timberland – Amite Catchment Area. Source: US Forest Service – FIA

Average annual growth and harvest removals of total growing stock timber, in cubic meters, on timberland – Amite Catchment Area. Source: US Forest Service – FIA

Average annual growth and harvest removals of total growing stock timber, in cubic meters, on timberland – Amite Catchment Area. Source: US Forest Service – FIA

Amite BioEnergy, Mississippi (2017)

The Catchment Area Analysis also looks at stumpage prices, the revenue paid to forest owners at the time of harvesting, to see if the demand from the pellet mill is having a negative impact (increasing competition and prices for other markets).

The chart below shows that prices are now lower than when the pellet mill began operating. While this may be good for all markets in the area, it is not good for the forest owner.

When considering if trends are good or bad, we must also consider from which perspective we are making the assessment. Increasing prices can be a positive, encouraging owners to plant more trees or to invest more in the management of their forest. Providing that increasing prices do not result in a loss of production in existing markets.

Amite Bioenergy Catchment Area - average stumpage prices ($/metric tonne). Source: Timber Mart-South

Amite Bioenergy Catchment Area – average stumpage prices ($/metric tonne). Source: Timber Mart-South

An important part of this analysis is to look for evidence to evaluate Drax’s performance against its new forest commitments, some of which relate directly to these trends and data sets.

Hood Consulting – the authors of Catchment Area Analysis of Forest Management and Market Trends: Amite BioEnergy – has looked at the impact of Amite BioEnergy on its supply basin.

The scope of the analysis had to be objective and impartial, using only credible data sources and references. However, in order to address some of the key issues and draw some conclusions, the consultants used their extensive experience and local knowledge in addition to the data trends.

A summary of their findings is detailed below.

Summary of key questions addressed in the analysis:

Is there any evidence that bioenergy demand has caused …?

Deforestation?

No. US Forest Service data shows that the total timberland area has increased by more than 5,200 ha.

A change in management practices (rotation lengths, thinnings, conversion from hardwood to pine)?

No / inconclusive. Changes in management practices have occurred in the catchment area over the last five to 10 years, but there is little evidence to suggest bioenergy demand has caused these changes. Market research shows thinnings have declined in this catchment area since 2014 (when Amite BioEnergy commenced production). However, local loggers identify poor market conditions for the decrease in thinnings, not increased bioenergy demand.

The primary focus of timber management in this area is the production of sawtimber. Rotation lengths of managed forests have remained unchanged (between 25-35 years of age) despite increases in bioenergy demand. Increased bioenergy demand, however, has benefited landowners in this catchment area, providing additional outlets for pulpwood removed from thinnings – a management activity necessary for sawtimber production.

Diversion from other markets?

No. Since 2014, softwood pulpwood demand not attributed to bioEnergy has increased 8% while demand for softwood sawtimber and hardwood pulpwood has increased 53% and 5%, respectively.

An abnormal increase in wood prices?

No. Prices for delivered pine pulpwood (the primary raw material consumed by Amite BioEnergy) have decreased 12% since the pellet mill commenced production in 2014.

A reduction in growing stock timber?

No / inconclusive. Total growing stock inventory in the catchment area increased 5% from 2014 through 2017 (the latest available data). Specifically, pine sawtimber inventory increased 13%, pine chip-n-saw inventory increased 24%, and pine pulpwood inventory decreased 12% over this period. This is indicative of an aging forest.

A reduction in the sequestration rate of carbon?

No. US Forest Service data shows the average annual growth rate of growing stock timber has decreased slightly since 2014, and a slower timber growth rate essentially represents a reduction in the sequestration rate of carbon. However, the reduced growth rate and subsequent reduction in the sequestration rate of carbon is due to the aging of the forest (changes in timber age class distribution), not to increases in bioenergy demand. As trees get older the growth rate slows down.

An increase in harvesting above the sustainable yield capacity of the forest area?

No. Growth-to-removals ratios, which compare annual timber growth to annual harvests, provides a measure of market demand relative to supply as well as a gauge of market sustainability. In 2017, the latest available, the growth-to-removals ratio for pine pulpwood equalled 1.80 (a value greater than 1.0 indicates sustainable harvest levels). Even with the increased harvesting required to satisfy bioenergy demand, harvest levels remain well below the sustainable yield capacity of the catchment forest area.

Evaluate the impact of bioenergy demand (positive, neutral, negative) on …

Timber growing stock inventory

Neutral. Total wood demand (from biomass and other solid wood products) is up more than 35% compared to 2014 levels. Intuitively, increased demand means more timber is harvested, which reduces total growing stock inventory. However, in this catchment area, inventories are so substantial

that increases in demand from bioenergy, as well as from other sources, have not been great enough to offset annual timber growth, and, as such, total growing stock inventory has continued to increase – an average of 2% per year since 2014 (when Amite BioEnergy commenced production).

Timber growth rates

Neutral. Timber growth rates have declined since 2014; however, evidence suggests the reduction in growth rates is more a product of an aging forest and not due to changes in bioenergy demand.

Additionally, young planted pine stands are actually growing at a faster rate than ever before – due to the continued improvement of seedling genetics. And, as timber is harvested and these stands are replanted in pine (as has historically occurred in the catchment area), over the long term, the average timber growth rate is likely to increase.

Weyerhaeuser Nursery Hazlehurst Mississippi

Forest area

Positive / neutral. Total forest (timberland) area in the catchment area increased more than 5,200 ha from 2014 through 2017, the latest available. And while our analysis of biomass demand and forest area found a moderately strong relationship between the two, findings are inconclusive as to whether the increase in timberland acreage can be attributed to increases in biomass demand.

Wood Prices

Neutral. Despite the additional wood demand placed on this market by Amite BioEnergy, since 2014, prices for delivered pine pulpwood (the primary raw material consumed by Amite BioEnergy) have decreased 12% in the catchment area. Prices for pine sawmill residuals and in-woods chips (the other two raw materials consumed by Amite BioEnergy) have also declined over the last several years – down 3% since 2016 for pine sawmill residuals and down 3% since 2015 for in-woods chips.

Markets for solid wood products

Positive / neutral. In the Amite BioEnergy catchment area, demand for softwood sawtimber to produce lumber has increased more than 50% since 2014. A biproduct of the sawmilling process is sawmill residuals – a material utilized by Amite BioEnergy to produce wood pellets. Not only has Amite BioEnergy benefited from the greater availability of this biproduct, but lumber producers have also benefited, as Amite BioEnergy has provided an additional outlet for these biproducts.

Read the full report: Catchment Area Analysis of Forest Management and Market Trends: Amite BioEnergy (UK metric version). An interview with the author, Dr Harrison Hood, Forest Economist and Principal at Hood Consulting, can be read here. Explore every delivery of wood to Amite BioEnergy using our ForestScope data transparency tool. This is part of a series of catchment area analyses around the forest biomass pellet plants supplying Drax Power Station with renewable fuel. Others in the series include: Georgia MillEstonia, Latvia, LaSalle BioenergyMorehouse Bioenergy and Chesapeake.

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.

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.

7 principles of a sustainable forest biomass policy

Biomass is playing an important role in moving the UK away from coal. At Drax Power Station, in the form of compressed wood pellets, biomass is already supplying roughly 17% of Great Britain’s renewable power.

But more than just being a low carbon replacement for fossil fuel generation, it is also crucial in maintaining the stability of the power network. Among renewable sources of power, biomass is unique in being able to provide the same range of ancillary services that can be provided by coal power stations – such as frequency control and inertia. This inherrent flexibility is vital in maintaining stability on Britain’s high voltage transmission system. Wood pellets can also reliably generate power, helping to fill in the gaps left by intermittent renewables when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine and avoiding reliance on diesel, coal and gas.

However, for the UK and the wider global environment to reap the maximum benefits from biomass, it must be produced sustainably. More than this, its supply chain must be low in emissions so that clear savings can be made versus power generation with fossil fuels.

To ensure this, the use of biomass is regulated in the UK under EU Timber Regulations and the Renewables Obligation (RO). But further guidelines are set to be introduced as part of the European Parliament’s update to the Renewable Energy Directive (RED), which will specify criteria for all biomass.

There is a clear need for this, but for these to be truly successful they need to be based on a set of robust key principles. A new report by Drax outlines seven of these which can ensure sustainable biomass usage in the future.

1. Forest biomass for bioenergy should be sourced from sustainable forests

The sustainability of the forests from which biomass is sourced is key to ensuring its usage has a positive impact on the environmental, social and economic health of that supply region.

For example, a properly managed forest can boost carbon stock as the younger, faster growing trees that are replanted after felling absorb more CO2 than older, over-mature trees.  Thinning operations also increase the growth of the biggest and best trees, ensuring more carbon is stored in longer term solid wood products.

Generators should be able to demonstrate they are avoiding biomass sourced from higher-risk areas where extracting biomass could cause long-term carbon stock decreases in soils or ecosystems, as well as other factors such as biodiversity loss, soil erosion or depletion of water sources.

2. Bioenergy from forest biomass should not be produced from high-risk feedstocks

Feedstocks, the raw materials turned into biomass pellets, must come from sustainable sources and avoid protected and sensitive sites that could be considered a risk.

In 2016 around 40% of all feedstock supplied to Drax originated as a sawmill residue. Processes such as thinning also serve as a source of biomass feedstock, while also benefitting the overall health and quality of the forest. Thinning a semi mature stand of trees allows the forest owner to maximise the production of higher value saw-timber trees, storing more carbon and generating more stable revenue streams. Having a variety of wood products markets from saw logs through to biomass incentivises land owners to maintain healthy forests and reduces the risk of conversion of forest to agriculture or urban development.

3. Carbon savings and emissions should be properly accounted

To understand the effectiveness of biomass sustainability policy, carbon savings need to be measured.

Factors such as fossil fuel substitution and the emissions associated with harvesting, processing and transporting biomass are relatively straightforward to measure.

4. Bioenergy should be limited to what can be sustainably supplied

Unlike coal or oil, which will eventually run out, more trees can be planted, grown and harvested.

That said, there is a natural limit to the amount of biomass available on the planet, and so it should not be considered an infinite resource. This is why it’s crucial biomass is sourced from sustainable forests managed following set guidelines. In short, to ensure biomass truly is sustainable, it is essential that working forests are actively managed and maintain or increase productivity.

5. Support should be given to all technologies that achieve significant carbon savings

One of the major advantages of biomass over other renewable sources is its potential to help the UK rapidly adapt to meet the EU target of achieving 27% of final energy consumption from renewables.

The fastest way for biomass to make an impact to the UK’s carbon emissions is through converting coal power stations to biomass, as is the case at Drax Power Station.

This repurposing of existing facilities not only offers rapid adoption of renewable energy, but also the ability to provide vital ancillary services other renewable sources can’t.

Quickly deploying biomass solutions in this manner will serve to help it become an established part of the energy system as it continues to decarbonise.

6. The efficient use of raw materials is supported by encouraging buoyant forest biomass markets

Globally, there are substantial amounts of forest residue and forestry industry by-products that currently go unused.

Biomass should be sourced from regions where the largest surpluses exist and the forest carbon balance can be maintained. To enable this to function effectively on a global scale, trade restrictions should be avoided.

Pelletisation offers one of the most efficient ways for this raw material to be used by making it safe, cost-efficient and low-carbon to transport around the world.

These principals are tried and tested by Drax and known to protect forests and ecosystems, as well as optimise supply chains to ensure carbon emissions are kept to a minimum. Ultimately, Drax’s experience in sustainably using biomass serve as a guide for other producers and governments to quickly decarbonise energy systems.

7. The sustainability of forest biomass should be independently verified

One of the best ways to guarantee biomass is sourced sustainably is by introducing third-parties and official guidelines that generators and suppliers can work with.

In Europe, forest level management certification schemes can act as an effective indicator that forests are managed in accordance with the guidelines laid out by Forest Europe. Outside of Europe, where Drax sources most of its biomass, independent, third part auditors can ensure the UK’s stringent criteria are being met on the ground.

Read the full report: The 7 Principles of a Sustainable Forest Biomass Policy – Proven to Work