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From the Editor
Policy-makers Must Consider Side Effects of Using Woody Biomass for Energy
From my standpoint, one of the most interesting discussions at the Composite Panel Association’s spring meeting centered on the growing use of woody biomass for pellets that are increasingly being burned for energy.
The four speakers all covered different ground before the hundreds of CPA members who packed the meeting room, and all did so eloquently and with obvious expertise. While the underlying tension that the issue has created in the panel-processing world was evident, however, it wasn’t addressed directly or debated.
No PowerPoint slides or numbers looked directly at the impact on the U.S. woodworking business of using more and more biomass for energy. The rapid growth in pellet manufacturing in this country is relatively new, so no one knows for sure where it will lead.
Two concerns, however, are obvious:
• Increased demand for biomass created by the growing pellet industry could drive up prices and ultimately have a significant financial impact on those who turn the wood residue into panels or use those panels to fabricate cabinets, countertops, floors and more.
• The demand for wood fiber could be such in years ahead that it creates a shortage of raw material for the plants that produce composite panels.
Should they become reality, either or both of those scenarios could significantly affect sales, jobs and bottom lines at hundreds of companies, ranging from the panel processors to the fabricators.
The first presenter at the CPA session, Jim Bowyer of Dovetail Partners, offered a science refresher on carbon and made it crystal clear that man is at least partly responsible for global warming. The next two, Pete Madden of Drax Biomass and Dave Tenny of the National Alliance of Forest Owners, laid out the economics of burgeoning pellet use in Europe and the importance of the wood industry sticking together as demands for products change. Finally, Laszlo Dory of The European Panel Federation looked at what’s happening on the ground in Europe and what the future might hold.
Responding to an audience question, Madden acknowledged that burning wood pellets for energy in Europe would not be economically feasible for Drax, the largest power producer in the U.K., without the significant subsidies provided by the government.
Among his many slides, Dory presented one that showed a steady increase in prices for wood materials in Europe and another that showed the demand for woody biomass outstripping the supply in the EU by 2025.
The subsidies, he said, encourage the direct burning of wood, bypassing all other industries, even though the use of wood for materials creates 30 times more jobs and creates 10 times the value.
“These developments are threatening jobs and income,” Dory said.
In the U.S., the composite panel industry itself comprises 44 plants that employ more than 8,000 people. The furniture industry has some 18,500 establishments with nearly 340,000 employees and contributes nearly $30 billion annually to the GDP. That’s an indication of what’s at stake.
The questions surrounding the use of woody biomass for fuel include many that go beyond issues of cost and supply. For example, is it wise to burn wood residue in the form of pellets and release carbon instead of using it for materials that will sequester that carbon for 20 or 30 years? Is the overall carbon impact of burning wood better than the impact of burning fossil fuels? Will the increase in demand for wood products lead to more forest planting, ensuring that supply keeps up with demand?
Projections, predictions and opinions abound, but no one knows for sure what the future holds.
One thing does seem certain, though: Government incentives play a significant role in the use of wood pellets for energy.
While the U.S. government and many states already have renewable energy programs and policies in place that promote the use of pellets, incentives here are not nearly as robust as they are overseas.
As the search for the way forward in this warming world leads to more initiatives for renewable, carbon-neutral energy sources, those who make the decisions must be implored to consider the industries that might be hurt if wood fiber becomes a growing part of the solution.
Scott W. Angus | Editorial Director | firstname.lastname@example.org
“While the U.S. government and many states already have renewable energy programs and policies in place that promote the use of pellets, incentives here are not nearly as robust as they are overseas.”