White paper refutes letter to Congress claims on biomass energy

By Katie Fletcher | May 12, 2016

Earlier this month, FutureMetrics LLC published a white paper authored by William Strauss that discusses why an editorial the Washington Post published at the end of April and the letter to U.S. Congress the article was based on make inaccurate claims about biomass for energy.

The Washington Post’s editorial entitled “Dear Congress: Burning wood is not the future of energy” was based on a recent written “warning” to congress by 65 research scientists and practitioners who study energy, soils, forested and wetland ecosystems and climate change. As a recognized global consultant in the wood pellet sector, Strauss with FutureMetrics stated “we strongly disagree with the experts’ characterization in their letter to Congress that biomass is never carbon neutral.”

Besides carbon neutrality Strauss highlights a number of inaccuracies he identified in the literature to Congress and written by the Washington Post. Strauss wrote that the foundation for carbon neutrality is sustainability. “Using wood for energy has to be part of a system that includes independent auditing that assures that the stock of carbon held in the forests is not depleted.” Strauss affirmed that concerns about deforestation are well-intentioned, but deforestation is not consistent with the “rigorous requirements for sustainability and the preservation of carbon sinks that are the foundation of the policies that support the substitution of coal by wood pellets in power plants.”

Strauss clarified that the testimony to Congress is right in that there is not enough sustainable wood supply in North America to replace all the coal used for power generation, but “as a transition fuel, industrial wood pellets can play an important role as one of many options for taking us from a heavily geologically carbonized energy sector to a future in which combustion of fuels made from geologic carbon is no lower allowed.”

Understanding how wood pellets can play a role is important, Strauss added. He stated that the authors of the letter to Congress and the editorial board of the Washington Post do not appear to grasp the size, scope and dynamic nature of North America’s forest products industry. The limits to the use of wood for energy are defined by the natural growth rates of working forests, Strauss said. “Hundreds of millions of acres of land in the U.S. and Canada are forested,” according to the white paper. “About 60 percent of those U.S. forests are “working forests” that have been managed for generations to produce the raw materials for lumber, paper and, more recently, wood pellets.”

Strauss shared that the loss of market for paper is having an impact on the forest products industry. The example of Maine was provided in the white paper where five large pulp and paper mills have permanently closed their doors in the past two years as the demand for printed media has declined. The five closed pulp and paper mills have reduced demand by about 2.2 million tons per year out of a total annual harvest in Maine of about 16.5 million tons per year, according to April 2016 data provided by the Maine Forest Service. Maine’s forests’ growth rate is far in excess of 16.5 million tons per year the paper stated.

Managed working forests are dynamic systems that are in a continuous state of growth and harvest, according to Strauss. In any given year, only a small portion of the forest landscape, depending on the growth rate of the trees, is harvested. Depending on the location and species, the areas of harvest are replanted or allowed to naturally regenerate. Strauss stated that all forest landowners of size have plans that define what they are sustainably allowed to cut annually. “The strategy is to have a continuous supply of healthy, fully grown trees that provide large diameter logs that are desirable to the sawmilling,” Strauss wrote.

 

The paper reiterated that for generations, the owners of the working forests throughout the U.S. and Canada have supplied a continuous flow of wood to sawmills, paper mills and, more recently, to pellet mills.  The only way mills receive a continuous flow is if the resource is managed sustainably so that the supply of wood never runs out.

 

Another point made in the response to the letter to Congress and corresponding Washington Post editorial was that tree farming is not different than food crop farming, it just takes longer. “Most forest landowners should be thought of as tree farmers with crops that take 15 to 50 years to grow,” the white paper stated.

 

The paper discloses that the industrial pellet industry is keeping the demand for lower-value forest products alive and is sustaining the jobs that traditionally have existed to satisfy the demand for paper. Industrial pellets can be made from the tops of branches (depending on the species) along with the center portion of the stem that traditionally went to the pulp mills for paper making. Some wood fiber used to make pellets also comes from sawmill residuals, pre-commercial thinnings or the middle portion of the tree.

 

“The Post editors and the Congressional letter authors seem to have ignored the entire tree farming sector,” Strauss wrote in the white paper. “Working forests are not old growth stands and they are not part of our national, state and local park systems. They are managed and nurtured to maintain or increase the stock of trees over time and provide a sustainable source of materials to the forest products industries (including the pellet sector).”

In the letter to Congress it stated, “burning forest biomass to make electricity releases substantially more carbon dioxide per unit of electricity than does coal.”

Strauss defined the fundamental criteria for carbon neutrality in combustion and how it works for industrial wood pellets in his response. If the stock of wood in the forests is not allowed to shrink in size that means the stock of carbon held in the forest does not shrink. Eventually, Strauss indicated, forests will reach a growth equilibrium and more land will need to be made into forest. However, unless there is money to be made in forestry, the opposite will happen with some forested lands converted to other uses, depleting those carbon sinks. Strauss believes that in North America, the industrial wood pellet sector has the potential to replace the steadily declining pulp and paper sector by providing a market for the medium-value parts of the trees. “The pellet sector will contribute to keeping forested land as forested land.”

Although currently, the pulp and paper industry is still by a large margin the primary user of pulpwood as data provided in the white paper shows, and forests are not shrinking, but have increased total inventories in both the Atlantic and Gulf regions.

The white paper concluded that everyone agrees on the need for sustainability, for renewable energy and for mitigating carbon emissions. However, where FutureMetrics disagrees is “the fact that industrial wood pellets deliver on all three.”

Strauss concluded, “There are significant carbon benefits to the power production industry (and all of the planet’s stakeholders) from substituting some or all of the coal used for generation at some of the world’s coal-fired power plants with wood pellets produced from continuously renewing forests.  The strategy of cofiring pellets with coal to lower CO2 emissions should be an important component of any country’s strategy for dealing with climate change.”

The full white paper can be downloaded on FutureMetrics’ website