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.
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
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. 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.
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.’
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.
A forestry 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
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, Drax’s forestry specialist 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.
 Source: FAOSTAT
 Source: Hawkins Wright, The Outlook for Wood Pellets, Q4 2017