Reaching for Sustainability

Pellet producers find customers want proof forest management best practices are being followed.
By Chris Hanson | September 23, 2013

U.S. pellet producers, land owners and other forestry organizations are heeding the call of international customers and local citizens to demonstrate how the pellet industry is addressing sustainable land management concerns.

“Biomass-fired renewable energy is endorsed by environmentalists, utilities and governments as a low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels,” says Seth Ginther, executive director of the U.S. Industrial Pellet Association. “Here in the U.S., biomass from forests in the Southeast has unified elected officials from both parties who see the economic and environmental value of working forests.”

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal is one of those officials. In a letter to the U.K.’s Department of Energy & Climate Change, which recently published a favorable report on proposals to enhance the sustainability criteria for biomass feedstocks, Deal credits the state’s regulations, sustainable forest management practices and existing infrastructure as being responsible for Georgia growing 30 percent more wood annually than what is being harvested.

Although the surge in the demand for biomass feedstocks overseas is still relatively recent, sustainable practices have been in place much longer. “It’s important to note that best management practices have been established by the forest industry and these have been in place for decades,” Ginther says. “Common forest management practices of thinning and sustainable rotational harvesting mean there is a continuous cycle of new growth in the forest. Bioenergy, specifically wood pellets, uses the same standards as every other product coming from U.S. forests.”

With the rising demand and a robust market, woody biomass production can become a way to sustain working forests. “Strong markets for forest products keep working forests working, providing essential environmental and economic benefits to society,” says Gretchen Schaefer, vice president of communications for the National Alliance of Forest Owners.

“In addition to the standards the forestry industry has in place,” Ginther says, “pellet producers ensure that their product is sustainable and emissions are low during sourcing, production and transport. Every step from the forest to the furnace is environmentally friendly.”

By demonstrating sustainable pellet production and forestry management, the woody biomass industry can only strengthen its cause and role in the energy marketplace. Ginther says although current laws, such as the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, are already ensuring sustainable methods are used, many USIPA producers are also certified by internationally recognized forest certification programs, such as the Forest Stewardship Council, Green Gold Label and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative.

Demonstrating Sustainability

At the core of the SFI system are 14 principles, including: provisions for forest productivity and health, protection of water resources and biological diversity, managing aesthetics and recreation, protection of any ecologically or culturally special sites, compliance with applicable laws and regulations, public involvement in sustainable forestry, and more.

Forest Management Planning

Expanding upon those principles are 20 objectives that use indicators or performance measures to show compliance. Under Forest Management Planning, for example, the indicators include documents showing a long-term resource analysis, periodic forest inventory, land classification and soils inventory, recommended sustainable harvest levels and a review of nontimber issues such as recreation or  tourism. The planning objectives also call for documentation of annual harvest trends and a method to calculate growth and yield, plus a system to recalculate planned harvests that can account for productivity changes due to factors such as long-term drought, fertilization, climate change, land ownership changes or improved data. Reforestation, best management practices, use of trained loggers, water quality monitoring, and more, are also detailed.

In the 123-page document, the SFI also lays out a chain-of-custody system to track wood fiber through the stages of production, enabling the use of material from certified and uncertified forest and specifying how to calculate certified content percentages. The appendices offer additional resources, plus specifications on how to use the label and seal that come with SFI certification.

“The SFI standard and the requirements apply regardless of the final product that is produced from that forest, whether it’s building materials, pellets or paper,” says Nadine Block, SFI vice president of government affairs.

To certify sustainable forest products, SFI utilizes third-party audits to assess a land owner’s forest management practices or a company’s supply chain. The process begins with submitting a participation application to SFI. If approved, SFI then contacts one of 10 certification entities to begin the audit. The forest owner must demonstrate that the SFI’s principles and objectives have been implemented into his operation. To determine SFI standard conformance, the auditor examines operating procedures and other forestry practice materials, monitors field performance onsite, interviews employees and contractors and contacts other interested parties such as government agencies, community groups and conservation organizations. If a minor nonconformity is discovered, a conformance certificate can be issued, but only after the lead auditor approves an action plan to address the issue within a set time not to exceed a year. More serious infractions result in the denial of the conformance certificate until approved corrective action has been implemented and a possible site revisit completed.

Maintaining Certification

If a site is approved, the certified participant provides SFI with a summary report from the auditor to post on the company’s website for public review. The audit report includes a description of the audit process, a general description of the participant’s forest land and manufacturing operations, name of the certification body, dates the audit was conducted, summary of the findings and the certification decision. To maintain certification, SFI requires participants to complete annual surveillance audits in addition to recertification every three years.

Although the process may sound intimidating to some producers, the benefits may have a strong impact on its business and customers. For instance, during the audit, a certifying auditor might be able to validate more than one standard, saving both time and money for the producer. 

One challenge in demonstrating sustainable wood procurement and production may lie with smaller, private forest owners. Steven Meyers, procurement manager for Fram Renewable Fuels LLC, says less than 20 percent of forest land in the Southeast is certified. Of that percentage, a notable portion is held by large forestry companies,  he says, whereas small land owners may not have the market incentive or capital to become certified. 

“There really needs to be something done at the state level,” Meyers says. Some states have even addressed the issue by developing certification programs for small private land owners at low cost and providing the manpower to run the program, he says.

By promoting sustainable forest practices through certification standards and working together, pellet producers may see themselves in a beneficial position to address growing demand and sustainability concerns from their international and domestic customers. “Our standard is in a good position to help pellet manufacturers demonstrate their sustainability and demonstrate how they are meeting European sustainability requirements,” Block says. “What we’ve seen is a lot of pellet manufacturers are certified to the SFI standard and that is being driven primarily by demand from Europe.”

UK, EU Approval

“The United Kingdom and European Union recognize that bioenergy is a vital part of the energy mix that is helping them meet its climate change commitments and renewable energy targets,” Ginther says. Wood pellets are the only readily available renewable energy alternative capable of providing consistent energy to meet consumer demands. It is a complementary technology intended to work alongside other energy sources like wind and solar to balance the grid. “It is with this in mind that the regulatory bodies in the U.K. and EU approach the use of wood pellets. While we can’t predict what the future holds, European regulators have expressed to us they are comfortable with the U.S. regulations, laws and oversight that govern our forests—they are some of the most robust internationally. We expect the industry to continue to grow and thrive in the coming years.”

Looking toward Europe’s expanding markets, the U.S. pellet industry got some good news in August when the U.K. Department of Energy & Climate Change released its report addressing feedstock sustainability requirements for power producers to meet the country’s renewables obligation using solid biomass and biogas fuel sources. The response was crafted using input from 73 respondents, including Sustainable Forestry Initiative Inc., the U.S. Industrial Pellet Association and Drax Power Ltd. It indicates the DECC still considers biomass an attractive fossil fuel replacement and addresses the government’s desire to manage sustainability concerns in addition to curtailing greenhouse gas emissions.

The new DECC criteria, to be finalized later this year, are based on the U.K. timber procurement policy (UK-TPP), considered by forest industry respondents to be a better concept to follow than the current system that focuses more on sustainable agriculture than forest land use. Additionally, the UK-TPP already recognizes certification strategies that meet its principles and builds upon existing U.K. guidelines to promote consistency, while avoiding costs for both wood producers and customers. The DECC states the policy’s criteria can be met by using certified wood from an approved forest that has been approved by the Forest Stewardship Council or the Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification methods, or the equivalent. DECC also responded to calls for policy stability, and says there will be no unilateral changes to the policy until 2027, although it reserves the option to make changes as biomass power generation improves after April 2019 or to comply with EU or international regulations.

Author: Chris Hanson
Staff Writer, Pellet Mill Magazine