Tag: Sustainable Biomass Program (SBP)

Keeping the options open

Roughly 750 million acres of the US is covered in forestland – an area nearly 12 times the size of the UK. Approximately two-thirds of that land is working timberland, producing wood used for construction and furniture. In short, US forestry is a massive industry.

Enviva is the world’s largest wood pellet producer and biggest biomass supplier to Drax Power Station, but in the context of the US forestry industry in which it operates, Enviva does things differently.

“We’re leading the industry in sustainability and transparency in our sourcing practices,” says Jennifer Jenkins, Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer at Enviva. “We’ve created unique tracking systems and we conduct science-based sourcing, both of which encourage sound forest stewardship.”

Specifically, Enviva draws on best practices to make decisions about which areas it sources from and how it protects the areas it doesn’t.

Protecting bottomland forests

A bottomland forest is an area of low-lying marshy area near rivers or streams that can be home to unique tree and wildlife species. These forests are flooded periodically and they can be ecologically important. However, they’re also a part of south-eastern America’s working forest landscape.

In fact, Enviva sources 3-4% of its wood from these areas, but only where harvesting improves the life of the forest. For example, in some cases, harvesting mimics naturally occurring storms, clearing the canopy so young seedlings and forest floor species thrive. More than that, harvesting can also help keep forests as forests.

“In the areas where we work, one of the biggest threats to forests is being converted to another use – specifically to developed or agricultural land,” explains Dr. Jenkins. “Our goal is to keep forests as forests. We want to preserve those with the highest risk of being converted for another use.” If landowners can gain a steady income from regular harvests, they’re likely to keep their land as working forests.

However, this is only true for carefully assessed forests where harvesting is deemed safe. Any land that doesn’t meet Enviva’s set of strict criteria means Enviva won’t source from it – it can simply walk away. The landowners, on the other hand, don’t have that luxury.

“Isn’t it our responsibility to provide another option for a landowner who might not want to facilitate a harvest?” asks Dr. Jenkins. “Maybe they recognize its value. Maybe they would prefer to conserve it instead. In recognition of our responsibility, we made a commitment.”

A fund that keeps forests as forests

Enviva’s commitment was to partner with the US Endowment for Forestry & Communities to set up the Enviva Forest Conservation Fund, a $5 million, 10-year programme designed to protect tens of thousands of acres of sensitive bottomland forests in the Virginia-North Carolina coastal plain.

It works by inviting submissions from projects looking to protect areas of high conservation value. Last year it awarded its first round of funding to four projects. More recently, in June 2017, the Enviva Forest Conservation Fund announced a total of $500,000 to go toward a second round of projects with partners such as Ducks Unlimited, an organization which – with the grant – plans to acquire more than 6,000 acres of wetlands to operate as a public Wildlife Management Area.

The Fund follows a history of proactive sustainability programmes, including a strict supplier assessment process and the company’s Track & Trace tool, a one-of-a-kind publicly-accessible system that tracks every ton of primary wood Enviva purchases back to the forest from which it was sourced. It is entirely transparent and is a testament to Enviva’s commitment to sustainability and doing things differently.

As Dr. Jenkins explains, this approach stems back to the origins of the company in 2004: “As a company that makes wood pellets, Enviva’s reason for being is to help lower greenhouse gas emissions. An emphasis on sustainability has always been a part of Enviva’s DNA.”

Sustainability, certified

Drax Morehouse woodchip truck

Of all the changes to Drax Power Station over the last decade, perhaps the biggest is one you can’t see. Since converting three of its six generating units from coal to run primarily on compressed wood pellets, Drax has reduced those units’ greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by over 80%.

And while this is a huge improvement, it would mean nothing if the biomass with which those reductions are achieved isn’t sustainably sourced.

For this reason, Drax works with internationally-recognised certification programmes that ensure suppliers manage their forests according to environmental, social and economic criteria.

Thanks to these certification programmes, Drax can be confident it is not only reducing GHG emissions, but supporting responsible forestry from wherever wood fibre is sourced.

Sustainability certifications

The compressed wood pellets used at Drax Power Station come from various locations around the world, so Drax relies on a number of different forest certification programmes, the three main ones being the Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI), Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC®)1 and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC).

The programmes share a common goal of demonstrating responsible forest management, but adoption rates vary by region. European landowners and regulators are most familiar with the FSC and national PEFC standards, while North American landowners generally prefer SFI and American Tree Farm System (also members of the PEFC family). In instances in which Drax sources wood pellets carrying these certifications, or in instances in which Drax purchase pellets sourced from certified forests, these certifications offer an additional degree of assurance that the pellets are sustainable.

Over 50% of the pellets used at Drax Power Station come from the southern USA, where SFI and American Tree Farm System are the most widely implemented certification programmes. Overall adoption levels in this region are relatively modest. However, the SFI offers an additional level of certification that can be implemented by wood-procuring entities, such as sawmills, pulp mills and pellet mills.

This programme is referred to as SFI Fiber Sourcing, and to obtain it, participants must demonstrate that the raw material in their supply chains come from legal and responsible sources. These sources may or may not include certified forests. The programme also includes requirements related to biodiversity, water quality, landowner outreach and use of forest management and harvesting professionals. Together, these certification systems have long contributed to the improvement of forest management practices in a region that provides Drax with a significant proportion of its pellets.

And since the SFI and ATFS programmes are endorsed by PEFC, North American suppliers have a pathway for their region’s sustainable forest management practices to be recognised by European stakeholders.

These certification programmes have been in use for many years. But with recent growth in the market for wood pellets, a new certification system has emerged to deal specifically with woody biomass.

Trees locked up in a bundle

New kid on the block

The Sustainable Biomass Program (SBP) was set up in 2013 as a certification system to provide assurance that woody biomass is sourced from legal and sustainable sources. But rather than replacing any previous forest certification programmes, it builds on them.

For example, SBP recognises the evidence of sustainable forest management practices gathered under these other programmes. However, the PEFC, SFI and FSC programmes do not include requirements for reporting GHG emissions, a critical gap for biomass generators as they are obligated to report these emissions to European regulators. SBP fills this gap by creating a framework for suppliers to report their emissions to the generators that purchase their pellets.

When a new entity, such as a wood pellet manufacturer, first seeks certification under SBP, that entity is required to assess its supply base.

Feedstock which has already been certified by another established certification programme (SFI, FSC®, PEFC or PEFC approved schemes) is considered SBP-compliant.

All other feedstock must be evaluated against SBP criteria, and the wood pellet manufacturer must carry out a risk assessment to identify the risk of compliance against each of the 38 SBP indicators.

If during the process a specific risk is identified, for example to the forest ecosystem, the wood pellet manufacturer must put in place mitigation measures to manage the risk, such that it can be considered to be effectively controlled or excluded.

These assessments are audited by independent, third party certification bodies and scrutinised by an independent technical committee.

In conducting the risk assessment, the wood pellet manufacturer must consult with a range of stakeholders and provide a public summary of the assessment for transparency purposes.

Sustainable energy for the UK

Counting major energy companies including DONG Energy, E.ON and Drax as members, the SBP has quickly become an authoritative voice in the industry. At the end of 2016, the SBP had 74 certificate holders across 14 countries – including Drax’s pellet manufacturing arm, Drax Biomass, in Mississippi and Louisiana.

It’s a positive step towards providing the right level of certification for woody biomass, and together with the existing forestry certifications it provides Drax with the assurance that it is powering the UK using biomass from legal and sustainable sources.

Like the fast-reducing carbon dioxide emissions of Britain’s power generation sector, it’s a change you can’t see, but one that is making a big difference.

Read the Drax principles for sustainable sourcing.

1 Drax Power Ltd FSC License Code: FSC® – C119787

Better sustainability certification standards for healthier forests

Mushrooms in a sustainably managed forest.

An increasing percentage of compressed wood pellets used at Drax Power Station are sourced from its own pellet plants in the southern US, but most biomass still comes from external suppliers.

In order to improve its sustainability systems, Drax has been encouraging suppliers to achieve Sustainable Biomass Program (SBP) certification. In the Baltics – a heavily forested region that has long been a source of renewable fuel – this rigorous auditing and certification process identified a new issue with certain types of raw material. The key to solving this problem was not just looking in the right places, but asking the right questions.

A surprising issue

In both Estonia and Latvia, around half the land is forested, so they’re countries in which wood has always played a huge part, not only for society but for the economy. And because it’s so important, it’s well protected by both governments.

“Latvia and Estonia have very strong forest legislation,” says Laura Craggs, Sustainability Compliance Manager at Drax. “You cannot harvest any site without the government giving you written permission.”

So, when it came to Laura’s attention that all forest product manufacturers and users in the region could be using wood from protected forestland called Woodland Key Habitats, it was a surprise.

Certification step change

This issue was raised thanks to Drax’s efforts to improve sustainability standards. Drax has always maintained a rigorous vetting process for suppliers to ensure they operate with sustainable practices. But the creation of the Sustainable Biomass Program (SBP), a unique certification scheme for woody biomass used in industrial, large-scale energy production, has further improved this.

“SBP raises the bar slightly. It looks at each pellet plant and says ‘these are the standards to meet, show us how you meet them’,” says Craggs. While not a huge departure from the process Drax used previously, there was one added step in the SBP process that in Latvia proved crucial: stakeholder engagement.

The SBP has introduced regional risk assessments, which are conducted by appointed working bodies tasked with, amongst many other things, reaching out to relevant stakeholders in a country or region to assess whether there are any sustainability issues. In Latvia, it was this that brought up the possibility of Woodland Key Habitats being affected.

Identifying it as an issue, however, did not mean it was easy to investigate – in Latvia, Woodland Key Habitats aren’t mapped. Craggs explains: “You can’t avoid these areas if you don’t know where they are.”

Mapping the unknown

Latbio (the Latvian Bioenergy association), an environmental stakeholder group, were the first to respond to the issue raised by NGOs and commissioned a mapping programme to define where Woodland Key Habitats might be found. This mapping involved highlighting the potentially risky areas where Woodland Key Habitats could be, through identifying certain ages and species of forests.

“All roundwood entering a pellet plant is now being checked to ensure it’s not from a Woodland Key Habitat before being brought onto site,” says Craggs. “When you get a delivery of wood, there’s a specific code that comes with it telling you exactly where it came from. What Drax suppliers are now doing is, if the code is from a risky area, they’re rejecting it.”

As the mapping of the risky areas is, by nature, overly prudent, it is important to carry out further checks, as many of the forest areas highlighted as risky may not actually be Woodland Key Habitats. This mapping was followed up by teams of biologists who went to the potential at-risk areas and made more detailed studies, looking for indicators of a valuable biotope, like the presence of lichens, mosses or old growth trees. This work has now been developed into a checklist which harvesting companies can carry out prior to harvesting in these risky areas. If the checklist shows the area has many of the characteristics of a Woodland Key Habitat, the low value roundwood cannot be purchased by the pellet plant. The process has already had a huge effect in raising awareness and training in identifying Woodland Key Habitats.

With these standards in place, the SBP can roll out a more rigorous degree of woodland sustainability certification. The data is then published on their website for full public scrutiny – meaning anyone can check that biomass material is coming from sustainable sources.

Read the Estonia catchment area analysis here, and the Lativa analysis here. These form 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 can be found here

Sustainable Biomass Program – proving biomass is sustainable

I was honoured to be able to accept the Excellence in Bioenergy award recently. Not for myself, but on behalf of all my colleagues at Drax who have worked so hard to make a reality of our shared plan to generate reliable, renewable electricity. Our achievements are truly a team effort.

In 2015, Drax became a predominantly biomass-fuelled power station.

We now generate more electricity at Drax power station from compressed low-grade wood pellets than from coal – between three and four per cent of the UK’s entire demand every day.

It’s a major triumph for all the brilliant engineers involved in converting the plant and everyone who has helped secure the incredibly complex supply chain that keeps it running.

But we truly believe that this is only the beginning for sustainable biomass.

Sustainable biomass is the ideal fuel to help the world decarbonise in an affordable and reliable way. It can support other renewables like wind and solar when the elements are against them and backup power is needed.

Because it can be created by upgrading existing coal-fired power stations, it can be added to the electricity grid in a fraction of the time and for a fraction of the cost of building new power stations. Why should the UK only build brand-new gas and nuclear power stations when existing coal power stations can be upgraded to low carbon, renewable tech? At Drax, we have shown how engineers working at what once was the biggest coal power station in western Europe can use their expertise to work with compressed wood pellet power generation.

And it can save bill payers billions of pounds when the true costs of bringing other renewables on stream are taken into account.

The industry’s greatest challenge right now is in proving that all the biomass we use is truly sustainable.

At Drax we have proven the sustainability of the biomass we use time and time again. But we can and will do more to ensure that standards right across the industry are always equally high.

We cannot underestimate the importance of sustainability. No corners can be cut. We must all join together and meet this challenge. Because without sustainable biomass there will be no industry at all. Without sustainable biomass in a balanced energy system with other renewables and low carbon technologies, the Paris climate change summit commitments may not be reached.

This is why the Sustainable Biomass Program is so important. The SBP has developed a certification framework  to provide assurance that woody biomass is sourced from legal and sustainable sources.

By working with the SBP, all of us in the industry alongside hard working families and businesses stand to benefit. Which is why all of us at Drax welcome its inception, and look forward to working with the SBP to help build a growing and healthy industry that helps our society transition to the renewable fuels of the future.

May 2017 update: the SBP has changed its name to the Sustainable Biomass Program — you can read its first annual report here.