Tag: wood pellets

Changing forest structure in Virginia and North Carolina

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

Forest owners have responded to the recovery in pine saw-timber markets, since the global financial crisis of 2008, by planting more forest and investing more in the management of their land. The same period has witnessed increased demand from the biomass sector which has replaced declining need for wood from pulp and paper markets.

The area of timberland (actively managed productive forest) has increase by around 89,000 hectares (ha) since 2010. This change is due to three important factors: new planting on agricultural land; the planting of low-grade self-seeded areas with more productive improved pine; and the re-classification by the US Forest Service (USFS) of some areas of naturally regenerated pine from woodland to timberland.

The 2018 data shows that pine forest makes up 46% of the timberland area, of which 61% is planted and the remainder naturally regenerated. Hardwoods cover 43% of the timberland area, with 93% of this naturally regenerated. The remaining area is mixed stands.

Composition of timberland area

Since 2000 there have been some significant changes in the composition of the timberland area with a transition from hardwood to softwood. Pine has increased from 39% of the total area in 2000 to 46% in 2018 and hardwood has decreased from 50% to 43% over the same period.

All pine areas have increased since 2000 with naturally regenerated pine increasing by 13,000 ha and planted pine by 340,000 ha since 2000. Mixed stands have declined by 6,500 ha as some of these sites have been replanted with improved pine to increase growth and saw-timber production.

The biggest change has been in the hardwood areas where there has been a decline of around 314,000 ha, despite the total area of timberland increasing by 31,000 ha.

Change in forest type

This change has been driven by private forest owners (representing 91% of the total timberland area), seeking to gain a better return on investment from their forest land.

Hardwood markets have declined since the 2008 recession and demand for hardwood saw-timber has not recovered. Demand for pine saw-timber has rebounded and is now as strong as pre-crisis.

Pine also offers much faster growth rates and higher total volumes in a much shorter time frame (typically 25-35 years compared to 75-80 years for hardwoods).

The decision to change species is similar to a farmer changing their agricultural crops based on market demand and prices for each product. Where forests are managed for revenue generation then it is reasonable to optimise the land and crop for this objective. This can be a significant positive, from a carbon perspective more carbon is sequestered in a shorter time frame and more carbon is stored in long term wood products, if the quantity if saw-timber is increased.

Increased revenue generation also helps to maintain the forest area (rather than conversion to urban development, agriculture or other uses).

A potential negative is the change in habitat from a pure hardwood stand to a pure pine stand, each providing a different ecosystem and supporting a different range of flora and fauna. There is no conclusive evidence that one forest type is better or worse than the other; there is a great deal of variety of each type.

Some hardwood forests are rich in species and biodiversity, others can be unremarkable. The key is not to endanger or risk losing any species or sensitive habitat and to ensure that any conversion only occurs where there is no loss of biodiversity and no negative impact to the ecosystem.

It is not clear whether all of the lost hardwood stands have been directly converted to pine forests, some hardwood stands may have been lost to other land uses (urban and other land has increased by 400,000 ha). Some may have been directly converted to pine by forest owners encouraged by the increase in pine saw-timber demand and prices.

Whatever the primary driver of this change it is clearly not being driven by the biomass sector.

Change in forest type – timing

The chart above demonstrates that the biggest change, loss of hardwood and increase in planted pine, occurred between 2000 and 2012, prior to the operation of the pellet mills. Since 2012, there has been no significant loss of natural hardwood and only a small decline in planted hardwood.

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). 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. The series includes: Estonia, Morehouse Bioenergy, Amite Bioenergy, and the Drax forestry team’s review of the Chesapeake report on Enviva’s area of operations.

Estonia catchment area analysis

View from Suur Munamagi over forest landscape in South Estonia.

Estonia is a heavily forested country with a mature forest resource that has been neglected over many years due to political and ownership changes. Management of state and corporate owned forests is now good, but some small privately-owned areas of forest are still poorly managed.

Despite this, both the forest area and the growing stock have been increasing, largely due to new planting and the maturing age class of existing forest.

Forest area has increased from 49% to 52% of the total land, increasing by more than 118 thousand hectares since 2010.

Land use in Estonia

Land use in Estonia [click to view/download]

Over the same period the growing stock increased by 52 million m3, with 60% of this growth in softwood and 40% in hardwood species. The data shows a slight decline in 2018 but this is due to a sampling error and the growing stock is thought to have been maintained at 2017 levels (this should be rectified in the 2019 data when available).

Change in forest growing stock – Estonia

Change in forest growing stock – Estonia [click to view/download]

The forests of Estonia have been going through a period of restitution since the 1990s. Land that had been taken into state ownership during Soviet rule has been given back to private owners. This process was complex and lengthy and limited active management in the forest during this time.

Since 2008, harvesting and management has increased. Private and corporate forest owners have been harvesting forest that had been mature and ready for clear felling. The longer-term harvesting trend has been considerably lower than annual growth (increment) and the maximum sustainable harvesting level, as shown on the chart below.

Annual increment and harvesting levels

Annual increment and harvesting levels [click to view/download]

In 2018 harvesting reached an all time high at just over 14 million m3 and just under the maximum threshold. It is expected to remain at this level as more forest matures and enters the cycle of harvest and regeneration.

Clear cutting (regeneration felling) is the largest operation by volume but thinning (maintenance felling) is the largest by area.

This indicates a forest landscape in balance, with widespread thinning to produce more sawlog trees and a large volume of clear cuts in the mature stands to make way for the next generation of forests.

Reforestation in Estonia. * Note: Since 2014 it has not been compulsory for private and other forest owners to submit reforestation data. [Click to view/download]

Reforestation in Estonia. * Note: Since 2014 it has not been compulsory for private and other forest owners to submit reforestation data. [Click to view/download]

Planting of seedlings is the most common form of regeneration. However, some native hardwood species are strong pioneers and naturally regenerate among the spruce and pine stands. This has led to a change in the species composition of some forests with an increase in hardwoods, although this is relatively small scale and only prevalent among some small private owners that do not invest in clearing unwanted regeneration.

Species mix in Estonian forests [Click to view/download]

Species mix in Estonian forests [Click to view/download]

Markets and prices for forest products

Sunrise and fog over forest landscape in Estonia

Sunrise and fog over forest landscape in Estonia

Pulpwood markets are limited in Estonia and this material has been historically exported to neighbouring Finland and Sweden. Export demand has had a significant impact on prices as can be seen in a spike in 2018 when demand was at its strongest.

The forest industry has been dominated by sawmills and panel board mills. Demand and production in this sector has been increasing and this has kept prices high. There is a substantial differential between sawlog and pulpwood pricing.

Comparison of sawlog and pulpwood prices [click to view/download]

Comparison of sawlog and pulpwood prices [click to view/download]

The pellet industry developed due to the abundance of low-grade fibre available domestically. This included sawmill and forest residues, as well as low grade roundwood from thinnings and clear cuts. Drax’s suppliers use a combination of these feedstock sources as shown below.

Drax feedstocks from Estonia 2018 [click to view download]

Sunrise through forest in Estonia

Sunrise through forest in Estonia

Summary of key questions addressed in the analysis:

Impacts of wood-based bioenergy demand to forest resources:

Forest area / forest cover

No negative impact. Regardless of increasing domestic biomass utilisation for energy and exports, forest area has increased due to afforestation programmes. Forest cover is not as high as forest area, due to temporarily un-stocked area after clear-cut. Despite this, forest cover has continuously increased from 2010–2018.

Growing stock

No negative impact. The total forest growing stock has been increasing for the last two decades. In 2018 the growth slowed or halted (official statistics show a decrease, but this is due to sampling error). In 2018 there was record-high wood demand from Finland, which was driven by high global pulp prices motivating maximal pulp production. This increased harvests to a previously unseen level.

Harvesting levels

Slight increasing impact. During 2004–2011, harvesting levels in Estonia were less than half of the estimated maximum sustainable level. This resulted in an increase in the maximum sustainable harvesting level for the 2011–2020 period. In 2018, the harvesting volumes were at the maximum sustainable level. The main drivers increasing the harvesting volumes have been increased sawmill capacity and production, high demand for pulpwood in Finland and Sweden and improved demand for energy wood. This was a temporary peak and demand has already slowed. Softwood lumber prices have decreased significantly in Europe due to an abundance of wood supply from Central Europe, which has been created by widespread bark beetle and other forest damages. Global pulp prices have also decreased to below 2017 prices.

Forest growth / carbon sequestration potential

Ambivalent impact. The annual increment has grown throughout the 2000–2018 period. Increased fuelwood price has enabled forest management in some of the alder forests that were completely unutilised in the past. Thinnings, both commercial and pre-commercial, accelerate long-term volume growth in forests, leading to increased carbon sequestration. Removal of harvesting residues decreases carbon sequestration since the residues are input to the soil carbon pool. However, the majority of the harvesting residues’ carbon is released to the atmosphere when the biomass decays, so the ultimate impact of harvesting residue collection is minimal if the collection is done on a sustainable level. The sustainability of the collection is determined by how the soil nutrient balance is impacted by collection. This is not accounting for the substitution effect that the harvesting residues may have, by e.g. reducing the need to burn fossil fuels. Utilisation of sawmill by-products does not directly impact forests’ carbon sequestration potential, but it can increase harvesting through improved sawmill overall profitability.

Impacts of wood-based bioenergy demand to forest management practices:

Rotation lengths

Neutral. Forest law regulates minimum forest age for clear-cuts. According to interviews, Riigimetsa Majandamise Keskus (RMK – the Estonian state forest company), often conducts the final felling at the minimum age. Due to the regulation, an increase of wood-based bioenergy demand has not shortened rotations at least in state-managed forests. In forests that are older than the minimum final felling age, sawlog price is a more important driver for final-felling decisions than wood-based bioenergy demand.

Thinning

Increasing impact. The increase of bioenergy demand has increased the demand for small-diameter hardwood, which in turn has increased thinnings in previously unmanaged forest stands. This will increase the availability of good quality sawlogs and will also accelerate the carbon sequestration (tonnes/ha/year) of the forests. However, the total forest carbon stock (tonnes/ha) will be reduced; in unmanaged (e.g. no thinnings) mature stands, the carbon stock is larger than in managed stands of similar age. The carbon stock of a thinned stand will remain below that of an unthinned stand regardless of post-thinning accelerated growth.

Conversion from hardwood to softwood

Neutral. No indication of hardwood conversion to softwood was found.

Impacts of wood-based bioenergy demand to solid wood product (SWP) markets:

Diversion from other wood product markets

Neutral. Production of sawnwood, wood-based panels, pulp and paper products have increased or remained steady, i.e. no evidence of diversion.

Wood prices

Slight increasing impact. During 2017–2018, the price of all roundwood assortments increased notably. The increase was strongest in pulpwood assortments, especially those that are not further processed domestically but are exported to mainly Finland and Sweden. Finnish demand for pulpwood was at a very high level in 2018. This was a temporary trend, however, and prices and demand have since decreased. The price increase for fuelwood was less dramatic, no sharp increases are observed. According to interviews, pellet production was the most important driver of fuelwood prices.

Read the full report: Catchment Area Analysis in Estonia. A 2017 interview with Raul Kirjanen, CEO of Graanul Invest, a wood pellet supplier of Drax operating in Estonia, can be read here. Read how Drax and Graanul work with NGOs when concerns are raised within our supply chain here.

Read more about how bioenergy has no negative impact on Estonia’s forest resources here.

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, Latvia, Chesapeake and Drax’s own, other three mills LaSalle BionergyMorehouse Bioenergy and Amite Bioenergy.

Morehouse catchment area analysis

Working forest in southern Arkansas within the Morehouse catchment area

The forest area around the Drax Morehouse BioEnergy plant has a long history of active management for timber production. 96% of the forest owners are private and around half of these are corporate investors seeking a financial return from forest management. The pulp and paper (p&p) sector dominates the market for low grade roundwood with over 75% of the total demand. The wood pellet markets use only 6% of the roundwood, of which 4% is used by Morehouse.

Given the small scale of demand in the pellet sector, the extent of influence is limited. However, the new pellet markets have had a positive impact, replacing some of the declining demand in the p&p sector and providing a market for thinnings for some forest owners and a new off-take for sawmill residues.

Pine forest is dominant in this area with an increasing inventory (growing stock) despite a stable forest area. Active management of pine forests has increased the amount of timber stored in the standing trees by 68 million tonnes from 2006 to 2018.  Over the same period the hardwood inventory remained static.

Chart showing historic inventory and timberland area in Morehouse catchment

Historic inventory and timberland area in Morehouse catchment; click to view/download.

US Forest Service FIA data shows that the pine resource in this catchment area has been maturing, the volume of timber has been increasing in each size class year on year. This means that the volume available for harvesting is increasing and that more markets will be required to utilise this surplus volume and ensure that the long-term future of the forest area can be maintained.

Chart showing historic pine inventory by DBH Class

Historic pine inventory by DBH Class in Morehouse catchment; click to view/download.

This is reflected in the growth drain ratio – the comparison of annual growth versus harvesting. A ratio of one shows a forest area in balance, less than one shows that harvesting is greater than growth. This can be the case when the forest area is predominantly mature and at the age when clear cutting is necessary.

A growth drain ratio of more than one shows that growth exceeds harvesting, this is typically the case in younger forests that are not yet ready for harvesting and are in the peak growing phase, but it can also occur when insufficient market demand exists and owners are forced to retain stands for longer in the absence of a viable market.

Drax Morehouse plant

Drax’s Morehouse BioEnergy compressed wood pellet plant in northern Louisiana

This can have a negative impact on the future growth of the forest; limiting the financial return to forest owners and reducing the cumulative sequestration of carbon by enforcing sub-optimal rotation lengths.

The current growth drain ratio of pine around Morehouse is 1.67 with an average annual surplus of around 7 million metric tonnes. This surplus of growth is partly due to a decline in saw-timber demand due to the global financial crisis but also due to the maturing age class of the forest resource and the increasing quantity of timber available for harvesting.

Historic growth and removals of pine in Morehouse catchment (million metric tonnes)

YearGrowthRemovalsNet GrowthGrowth-to-Drain
200914.112960762411.1860124622.92694830041.26166145535
201014.580331100610.91819493463.662136166021.33541589869
201115.129903273610.72162297824.408280295451.41115792865
201215.357258404710.30755904395.049699360811.48990254039
201315.63898206189.701617808065.93736425371.61199733603
201415.91041518229.376564771556.533850410651.69682773701
201515.94235364499.669133266476.273220378431.64878828387
201616.43527840789.579357241816.855921165961.71569740985
201716.838075354610.1594737396.678601615681.65737672908
201817.770968348910.65938820047.111580148561.66716588371

The chart below shows the decline in pine saw-timber demand in the catchment area following the financial crisis in 2008. It also shows the recent increase in pulpwood demand driven by the new pellet mill markets that have supplemented the declining p&p mills.

Sawmills are a vital component of the forest industry around Morehouse, with most private owners seeking to maximise revenue through saw-timber production from pine forests.

As detailed in the table below, there are 70 markets for higher value timber products around this catchment area. These mills also need an off-taker for their residues and the pellet mills can provide a valuable market for this material, increasing the viability of the saw-timber market.

Operating grade-using facilities near Morehouse timber market

TypeNumber of MillsCapacityCapacity UnitsHardwood Roundwood At Mill From Market Softwood Roundwood At Mill From Market 
Consumption, million green metric tonnes
Lumber6810538.8235294M m³1.737194320550.88604623042613.06745552335.69986977638
Plywood/Veneer2904M m³000.9617438725360.506109617373
Total701.737194320550.88604623042614.02919939586.20597939376

Pulp and paper mills dominate the low grade roundwood market for both hardwood and softwood. The pellet mill market is small with just 3 mills and therefore does not influence forest management decisions or macro trends in the catchment area. However, demand for wood pellet feedstock exceeds 1.5 million tonnes p.a. and this can provide a valuable market for thinnings and sawmill residues. A healthy forest landscape requires a combination of diverse markets co-existing to utilise the full range of forest products.

Operating pulpwood-using facilities near Morehouse timber market

TypeNumber of MillsCapacityCapacity UnitsHardwood Roundwood At Mill From Market Softwood Roundwood At Mill From Market 
Consumption, million green metric tons
Pulp/Paper117634.86896M metric tons3.489826926741.192570970097.557287050371.66598821268
OSB/Panel62412.55M m³002.567325398621.19890681942
Chips178395.08999M metric tons2.938909722111.46484421365.287607151192.18745126814
Pellets31573.965975M metric tons002.078219858451.01128896402
Total346.428736648862.6574151836917.49043945866.06363526426

In its analysis, Forisk Consulting considered the impact that the new pellet mills including Morehouse BioEnergy have had on the significant trends in the local forest industry. The tables below summarise the Forisk view on the key issues. In its opinion, the Morehouse plant has had no negative impact.

Bioenergy impacts on markets and forest supplies in the Morehouse market

ActivityIs there evidence that bioenergy demand has caused the following?Explanation
DeforestationNo
Change in forest management practiceNo
Diversion from other marketsPossiblyBioenergy plants compete with pulp/paper and OSB mills for pulpwood and residual feedstocks. There is no evidence that these facilities reduced production as a result of bioenergy markets, however.
Increase in wood priceNoThere is no evidence that bioenergy demand increased stumpage prices in the market.
Reduction in growing stocking timberNo
Reduction in sequestration of carbon / growth rateNo
Increasing harvesting above the sustainable yieldNo

Bioenergy impacts on forests markets in the Morehouse market

Forest metric Bioenergy impact
Growing Stock Neutral
Growth Rates Neutral
Forest Area Neutral
Wood Prices Neutral
Markets for Solid Wood Neutral to Positive*
*Access to viable residual markets benefits users of solid wood (i.e. lumber producers).

Read the full report: Morehouse, Louisiana Catchment Area Analysis. An interview with the co-author, Amanda Hamsley Lang, COO and partner at Forisk Consulting, can be read here. Explore every delivery of wood to Morehouse 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: ,

Others in the series include: Georgia MillEstonia, Latvia, Chesapeake and Drax’s own, other three mills LaSalle BionergyMorehouse Bioenergy and Amite Bioenergy.

Heating the future

We all want our homes and our workplaces to be warm and cosy, but not at the cost of catastrophic climate change. That’s why decarbonising our heating is a challenge that simply cannot be ignored.

Making decisions about how this is done requires careful consideration and a detailed, deliverable national strategy.

Here we discuss the key issues in decarbonising heat.

The numbers

The Climate Change Act commits the UK to reducing its carbon emissions by at least 80 per cent of their 1990 levels by 2050.

As heating our homes and workplaces is responsible for almost one fifth of our country’s total carbon emissions, we are clearly going to need to make huge changes to the way we keep our homes and workplaces warm in order to meet those commitments.

‘Over 80% of energy used in homes is for heating – suggesting large potential for continued decarbonisation.’

— Energising Britain: Progress, impacts and outlook for transforming Britain’s energy system, by I. Staffell, M. Jansen, A. Chase, C. Lewis and E. Cotton, 2018.

Improved insulation, greater energy efficiency and electrification will all reduce the need for fossil fuel-based heating. However, domestic energy efficiency in the UK is lagging well behind targets, although the situation varies from region to region – and such targets do not even exist yet for the non-domestic sector.

Roof insulation material

Even in a low or zero-carbon future, we’re still going to need to keep our homes and workplaces warm – and affordably.

Future policy

Against this backdrop, in March 2018, the UK Government issued a call for evidence for a Future Framework for Heat in Buildings.

Chancellor Phillip Hammond introduced a new ‘future homes standard’ in his 2019 Spring Budget Statement, “mandating the end of fossil fuel heating systems.” Gas boilers will be banned from all new homes from 2025.

A major change is coming. But what else will we need to change in order to transform our heating systems?

1. More electrification

The most noticeable change in the way we heat our homes and workspaces in the future may well come from the need to switch from systems that fuelled by natural gas to ones that are driven by electricity.

Some technologies that can offer a solution to the challenge of decarbonising heating depend on a significant amount of electricity to keep the warmth flowing.

For instance, the hybrid heat pump scenario which is currently supported by the Committee on Climate Change would see up to 85% of a consumer’s need for heat being met by low-carbon electricity.

To give some context to that figure, according to the Committee, 85 per cent of the UK’s homes now rely on fossil-fuel derived natural gas for heating and hot water, and on average these: “currently emit around 2tCO2 per household per year… which represents around one tenth of the average UK household’s carbon footprint.”

Changing from a situation where our heating depends on 85% fossil fuel gas to one that depends on 85% low or zero carbon electricity is little short of a complete transformation. Given that the new future homes standard is due to be introduced in less than six years, this transformation will need to happen quickly.

Of course, a great deal of the extra electricity needed will come from intermittent renewables such as wind turbines and solar panels – especially as the cost of renewable electricity is falling.

Much of that power looks likely to be supplied by distributed sources rather than those integrated into the national grid. Indeed, since 2011, power generation capacity connected directly to the distribution network grew from 12 gigawatts (GW) to more than 40 GW by the end of 2017, according to estimates from energy experts Cornwall Insight in a report for our B2B energy supply business, Haven Power.

With so much of our electricity reliant on the weather, there will still be a need for dispatchable and flexible thermal sources and energy storage, such as Drax and Cruachan power stations. Their centralised power generation can be turned up and fed directly into the national transmission system at short notice, to keep our heating running and our homes warm.

Dam and reservoir, Cruachan Power Station, Scotland

Such a transformation will obviously require careful strategic planning as well as an enormous amount of investment.

There may well be no single solution to the challenge of heat decarbonisation, rather a number of different solutions that depend on where people live and work, their individual circumstances, the energy efficiency of their homes and the resources they have close at hand.

But while it has previously been reported that the overall or system costs of electrifying heating could be as much as three times the cost of using gas, another study suggests that the costs could be much closer.

2. More heat pumps

Heat pumps that absorb environmental warmth and use it to provide low carbon heating have always been considered a possible option for the four million homes and countless workplaces that are not currently connected to the UK’s mains gas network.

Recently expert opinion has been changing with hybrid heat pumps seen as a workable solution even for homes and workplaces that are connected to gas supplies. Indeed, in 2018 the Committee on Climate Change stated that hybrid heat pumps: “can be the lowest cost option where homes are sufficiently insulated, or can be insulated affordably.” This means that they may be one of the simplest and most affordable options to provide the heating of the future.

Hybrid heat pumps draw heat from the air or ground around them and use a boiler to provide extra heat when the weather is exceptionally cold. In a low carbon future, that boiler could be fuelled by biogas. In a zero carbon situation, it could be powered by hydrogen.

Heat pumps can be air-source (ASHP) – absorbing warmth from the atmosphere like the heat exchanger in your fridge in reverse – or ground source (GSHP). GSHPs absorb heat through on a network of pipes (a ground loop) buried or a vertical borehole drilled in the earth outside your home or workplace.

Both ASHPs and GSHPs can be used to support underfloor heating or a radiator system, though neither will provide water heated to the high temperature a natural gas boiler will reach to keep radiators hot.

And even though the warmth they absorb is free, heat pumps depend on a supply of electricity to condense it and to bring it back to the heating system inside the house.

This electricity could be generated by distributed power from local solar PV, wind turbines, drawn from batteries or even from the low carbon grid of the future.

It is worth noting that the size of heat pumps and the amount of land they require – especially GSHP – makes them a less attractive solution for people who live or work in built up areas such as cities. While for those who live in blocks of flats, it is difficult to see how individual heat pumps could be a practical solution.

3. More hydrogen

The idea of switching the mains gas grid to store and transport hydrogen has long appealed as a potential solution to the challenge of decarbonising heating. Renewable hydrogen could then be burnt in domestic boilers similar to those we currently use for natural gas.

The benefits are many. Hydrogen produces no carbon emissions when burnt, and can be stored and transported in much the same way as natural gas (provided old metal pipes have been replaced with modern alternatives).

And given the sunk costs involved in the existing gas grid and in the network of pipes and radiators already installed in tens of millions of homes, hydrogen has always been expected to be the lowest cost option too.

However, according to the Committee on Climate Change’s latest findings, hydrogen should not be seen as a ‘silver bullet’ solution, capable of transforming our entire heating landscape in a single change.

The main reasons they give for this judgment are the relatively high cost of the electricity required to produce sufficient hydrogen to power tens of millions of boilers, the undesirability of relying on substantial imports of hydrogen, and the lack of a carbon-free method to supply the gas cost-effectively at scale.

Hydrogen could, however, be produced by gas reformation of the emissions retained by bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS) such as that being pioneered at Drax Power Station. Carbon capture use and storage (CCUS), of which BECCS is the renewable variant, is supported by the UK government through its Clean Growth Strategy as it has potential to accelerate decarbonisation in power and industrial sectors.

Extremely rapid progress to provide hydrogen in sufficient quantities from BECCS is unlikely – but the first schemes could begin operating in the late 2020s.

Hydrogen production also has the potential to radically transform the economics of CCUS, making it a much more attractive investment.

It was originally assumed that the power required to drive the energy-intensive process of hydrogen created via electrolysis would come from surplus electricity generated by intermittent renewables at times of low demand. However, that surplus is not now generally regarded as likely to be sufficiently large to be relied upon. 

It is these limitations, together with a comprehensive model of the likely costs involved in different approaches to decarbonisation, that led the Committee on Climate Change to suggest that hybrid heat pumps could provide the bulk of domestic heating in the future.

At present, it seems likely that converting to hydrogen-fuelled boilers will mainly be an attractive option for those who live and work near areas where the renewable fuel can be most easily created and stored. The north of England is a prime example – close to the energy and carbon intensive areas of the Humber and Tees valleys where CCUS and hydrogen clusters could be located with good access to North Sea carbon stores such as aquifers and former gas fields.

4. More solar

Many homes in the UK – especially in the south – could be heated electrically without carbon emissions at the point of use.

Solar thermal (for water heating) or solar PVs (for electric and water heating) common sights on domestic property rooftops. The intermittency of solar power need not be an issue as the electricity generated could then be stored in batteries ‘behind the meter’ until it is needed.

However, the lack of sufficient daylight for much of the year in many parts of the UK could, together with the still relatively high cost of battery storage, still mean that this would not necessarily be a solution that can be applied at scale to millions of homes and workplaces all year round.

As the cost of battery storage continues to fall, it may well be that solar becomes a more practical and cost-effective solution.

5. More biomass

More geothermal

Sustainably sourced compressed wood pellets and biomass boilers have long been proposed as a potential solution to decarbonising heating for the many people who live and work off the mains gas grid. Bioenergy as a whole – including biogas as well as wood pellets – now provides around four percent of UK heat, up from 1.4% in 2008.

The main barriers to this are the current relatively high cost of biomass boilers. This is currently offset by the Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI) which the UK government has committed to continuing until 2021.

As this solution is adopted by more consumers, it is anticipated that the real costs of such new technology will fall as economies of scale start to take effect in much the same way that solar PV and battery technology has recently become more affordable.

6. More geothermal

Ruins of a tin mine, Wheal Coates Mine, St. Agnes, Cornwall, England

Geothermal energy uses the heat stored beneath the surface of our planet itself to provide the energy we need.

While in some countries such as Iceland, geothermal energy is used to drive turbines to generate electricity that is then used to provide power for heating, it is envisaged that in the UK it could be converted into warmth through massive heat pumps that provide heating to entire communities – especially those in former mining areas. There is already one geothermal district heating scheme in operation in the UK, in Southampton.

It is envisaged that such geothermal schemes would work most effectively at a district level, providing zero carbon heat to many homes and workplaces. According to a recent report, geothermal energy has the potential to “produce up to 20 per cent of UK electricity and heat for millions.”

At present, drilling is being carried out to see if geothermal heating could be viable in Cornwall. However, there is no reason why it could not be used in disused coalmines too where ground source heat pumps (GSHPs) would absorb and condense the required heat. This means that geothermal could have strong potential as a solution to the challenge of decarbonisation for former mining communities.

7. More CHP

Cory Riverside Energy’s Resource Recovery Facility in Belvedere, London, could be operated as a CHP plant in the future

By using the heat created in thermal renewable electricity generation – such as biomass – in combined heat and power schemes, businesses and individuals can reduce their energy costs and their carbon emissions. Such schemes can work well for new developments on a district basis, and are already popular in mainland Europe, especially Sweden, Denmark and Switzerland.

Warm homes, factories and offices

There are already a number of viable solutions to decarbonising heating in the UK. They rely on smart policy, smarter technology and customers taking control of their energy.

Rather than any one of these technologies providing a single solution that can help every consumer and business in the country to meet the challenge in the same way, it is more likely that it will be met by a number of different solutions, depending on geography, cost and individual circumstances. These will sometimes also work in concert rather than alone.

The UK has made solid progress on reducing carbon emissions – especially in power generation. When it comes to heating buildings, rapid decarbonisation is now needed. And that decarbonisation must avoid fuel poverty and help to rebalance the economy.

Find out more about energy in buildings in Energising Britain: Progress, impacts and outlook for transforming Britain’s energy system.

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/

Drax Biomass invests in greenhouse gas efficiencies

close-up of truck raising and lowering

We have increased the capacity at Drax Biomass Amite and Morehouse pellet plants to increase capacity and made them more greenhouse gas (GHG) efficient. Central to the projects was the addition of storage silos and handling equipment to allow increased use of dry shavings and other mill residuals. The developments included the addition of an extra truck dump at each facility to allow delivery of increased volumes of these feedstocks.

Drax biomass pellet trucks

Use of mill residuals and dry shavings reduces the energy required to make a pellet, as such material does not need to be de-barked, chipped and re-sized in the same way as roundwood. Some of the material has a low moisture content and is therefore able to enter the process after the dryer, which effectively increases the capacity of each plant. This drives down the average GHG emission per tonne of pellets produced. A key measure of this is the KWh of electricity per tonne of pellets, and we saw this reduce by about 10% in the final months of the year compared with the start of the year, with further savings anticipated.

LaSalle BioEnergy in Louisiana

At LaSalle, a significant amount of our investment is going into allowing pellets to be transported to the port by rail, rather than truck. For the 250 km trip to Baton Rouge, a significant carbon saving compared to trucks will be achieved when LaSalle reaches its capacity of 450,000 tonnes per year. Moving pellets by rail should start in the next year.