Deja vu in Miami

By Tim Portz | November 05, 2013

Within the first hour of the U.S. Industrial Pellet Association’s 3rd Annual Exporting Pellets conference, attendees heard pellet demand forecasts topping 27 million tons by 2020, a nearly nine fold increase in just six short years. The remainder of the conference was dedicated to robust discussion about scaling the industry to meet this demand, while clearly establishing with the energy consuming public the scientific rationale for woody biomass derived power.

This responsibility can become a heavy yoke on the players inside any renewable energy sector, and sprinkled amongst the conference’s assembly were longtime renewable energy veterans who have watched at least one other renewable sector grapple with scale-up issues, increased public scrutiny and rabid and well-funded opposition. For these veterans, the air in Miami must have carried the slight whiff of déjà vu. Anyone in the audience who spent time around the U.S. ethanol industry in the late 1990s, and early 2000s (I saw more than one of just these sorts of professionals) certainly felt this curious sensation.  In 2000, U.S. ethanol production had not yet achieved 2 billion gallons and was just beginning its approach to the steep part of the hockey stick that would define its explosive growth in the middle 2000s.

In so many ways, the industrial wood pellet industry is now where the corn ethanol industry was in the earliest years of the 21st century. The production of wood pellets at industrial volumes has been proven to be viable, but the process is far from perfected as each and every major pellet producer CEO agreed during the conference’s final panel.  There are currently less than 10 pellet mills operating at the output levels most industry professionals believe will be the model moving forward. To satisfy demand numbers like the ones bandied about in Miami, the industry will need to plan, finance, build and commission nearly 50 of them.

Finally, the industry is clearly aware that opposition will be a part of its future. The unresolved questions revolved around which industry criticisms even warrant a response and partitioning those out from the cacophony of criticism from activists that will oppose any large scale energy production platform, regardless of its scientific merits. One of the conference’s most anticipated and well attended panels was a panel examining the carbon cycle in biomass derived base load power.  The panel was compelling, backed by rigorous science and populated with some of the best minds in forest carbon accounting. Still, the industry recognizes that 90 minute panels will not satisfy critics who instead want to draw the industry into a battle of traded sound bites.

Will the next ten years in this industry feel like the ten year march to over 13 billion gallons of production from nearly 200 production facilities that the biofuels industry experienced in the first decade of the 21st century?  It would be hard to argue that that would be a bad thing.