US Biomass: Where Do All the Wood Pellets Go?

Europe is usually the last place on one’s mind when riding through miles of surprisingly desolate pine forests, stretching from the Alabama line to Georgia’s marshy coast. But, in an unlikely convergence of European eco-policy and Southeastern pines, a Georgia wood pellet plant is now supplying a German-based utility with a steady stream of carbon-neutral energy.

For over a year now, Georgia Biomass, L.L.C., a wholly owned subsidiary of RWE Innogy, Inc., has overseen the production of 750,000 metric tons of wood pellets per year.  After a 100-mile rail trip from its Waycross, Ga. plant to the port of Savannah, the pellets are received as cargo bound for Europe where they are co-fired in coal-burning plants.

If not for the largesse of European utilities required to meet government carbon emissions standards for their coal-burning plants, however, the U.S. pellet export industry would arguably not exist.  Such emission standards have yet to reach the federal level here in the U.S. 

Even so, pellet exports from the U.S. to Europe currently average over 2 million metric tons per year, which converts to about 450 MWs of electrical capacity solely from combusted pellets.  But that’s still a tiny fraction of Europe’s energy needs — thus, there’s room for growth as a number of coal-fired power plants switch from coal to pellets.  By 2020, Europe may annually import as much as 40 million metric tons of pellets from all sources, up from today’s 3.5 million metric tons of total pellet imports, says bio-energy consultant William Strauss.

“As long as the wood used to make these things comes from certified sustainable sources, then the Europeans quantify it as carbon neutral,” said Strauss, president of the Maine-based FutureMetrics.  “Even though it costs more to burn wood pellets than coal, it’s still cheaper than the carbon tax.” 

Neither Georgia Biomass, L.L.C. or RWE Innogy, Inc., responded to requests for comment. But Nathan McClure, a certified forester with the Georgia Forestry Commission who is very familiar with their local operations, said that Georgia Biomass processes roughly the equivalent of the annual growth on 230,000 acres of forests — mostly Slash and Loblolly pines, ideally within a 50-mile radius of the plant. 

When the wood is brought in it’s roughly 50 percent moisture, says McClure, so to meet its production capacity of 750,000 metric tons of pellets per year, Georgia Biomass needs almost double the amount in unprocessed wood chips or timber.  McClure says most of that wood will come from thinning forests that have been planted with 500 to 700 trees per acre. 

Georgia Biomass, L.L.C, procures wood from pine forests grown on land that has been certified as sustainable, thus meeting one requirement of their product’s carbon-neutrality. 

Raw timber that arrives at pellet plants from these sustainable forests is first debarked and chipped.  Sawmill residues are also included as a raw material for the pellet production.  The residues and timber chips are dried and hammer-milled to a fine, flour-like consistency.  They are then pelletized before being shipped to Europe as dry bulk cargo in loads of 30 to 40,000 tons each. 

“It’s cheaper to produce electricity from chipped logging residues than from pelletized wood,” said McClure.  “But if you’re shipping them long distances, compression removes [most of the moisture] so they become more energy dense.”

Georgia annually grows at least 30 percent more wood than it consumes.  In fact, McClure says the state could export more than double its current amount of some million metric tons of pellets annually and still be able to certify its forests as sustainable. 

Current rates for a ton of pulpwood delivered to a Georgia mill averages $27 per metric ton.  Because of such low rates, almost all pellets exported to Europe originate in the Southeast.  However, by the time the manufactured pellets hit the local docks for shipment to Europe, their current cost to the European utility is some $165 per metric ton.  That still doesn’t include insurance or shipping costs. 

And what would happen to the pellet prices if the currently depressed saw timber market finally comes back?

“Counter-intuitively, it would be good for the pellet industry,” said McClure.  “We have a ‘wall of wood’ in Georgia due to a tremendous amount of tree planting that occurred here in the 1980s and 1990s.  And we have a tremendous amount of wood now approaching saw timber size.” 

That’s in part because a better saw timber market equals more residue.  When a log goes into a sawmill, McClure says that as much as half of that log ends up as saw chip residue, which is a readily available resource for wood pellet plants.

Currently, more than a half dozen major European utilities are now buying some 2 million metric tons of U.S.-made wood pellets annually. 

German Pellets Texas, L.L.C. is planning to build a 500,000 metric ton capacity plant on the site of a former wood-chip mill in east Texas.  Claudia Roehr, a spokesperson for German Pellets GmbH, a partner in the Texas L.L.C., confirms that their company is in the final stages of coordinating the building phase of the new plant, whose pellets will also be exported to Europe, but Roehr would offer no other details. 

And 60 miles north of the deep-water port of Panama City, Florida, Green Circle Bio Energy, Inc., in operation since 2008, has been producing 560,000 metric tons of pellets per year for European export.  Morten Nerass, Green Circle’s CEO, says his company is continuing to look for near-term opportunities to expand its sales to large European utilities. 

Strauss says that conventional white wood pellets have the potential energy density of some 19 gigajoules per metric ton.  But torrefied pellets, black pellets baked in ovens to remove their water and sugars, are more energy dense and contain the equivalent of between 21 to 23 gigajoules per metric ton.  

Black pellets also have the added advantage of being extremely water resistant.  In contrast, conventional pellets tend to turn to sawdust mush when wet.  But as yet, black pellets are not being produced on industrial scales.  However, Strauss says the transition to a fully black pellet market of what he terms “bio-coal” is likely to happen within the next five years.  

Whether this existing European export market will continue expanding, however, is not at all certain.  Why? 

In three to five years, industry sources say, European pellet imports from Africa, South America, Russia and Asia are going to be cheaper than those from the American Southeast or Canada. 

And these same sources say that with natural gas prices at record lows and regulatory pressure currently off the U.S. Congress in this election year, U.S. utilities aren’t under Federal pressure to incorporate biomass into their energy mix.  

Although there’s a growing pellet market for U.S. domestic heating units, what would make the pellet market viable on an industrial scale here in the U.S.?  

Fossil fuels and natural gas will have to become a lot more expensive, says Nerass, and regulations that put a cost on carbon would have to be imposed.

As Seth Ginther, the U.S. Industrial Pellet Association’s executive director, notes:  “Mandatory [regulations] at the federal level with biomass included as a renewable energy product would be a game changer.” 

Image: Pile of wood pellets via Shutterstock

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Bruce Dorminey is an award-winning science journalist who is a former Hong Kong bureau chief for Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine and a former Paris-based technology correspondent for the Financial Times newspaper. However, he has written about everything from potato blight to dark energy. Most recently, he has been covering climate change and the environment and is an active member of the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ). A frequent contributor to Astronomy magazine, he is the author of the book "Distant Wanderers: The Search for Planets Beyond the Solar System." Dorminey writes an over-the-horizon tech column for Follow me on Facebook , Twitter and Google + .

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