The Role of Bioenergy in the Future of Southern Forests

By Suz-Anne Kinney – Forest2Market

The Role of Bioenergy in the Future of Southern ForestsA new report on the future of southern forests concludes that bioenergy demand could bring about changes in forest conditions, management and markets. The report is the result of the collaboration of the USDA Forest Service and the Southern Group of State Foresters. “The Southern Forest Futures Project: Summary Report,” developed by David N. Wear and John G. Greis, identifies key areas forest managers will focus on to maintain southern forests for the next 50 years.

For bioenergy to trigger changes in forest conditions, management and markets, according to the report, a perfect storm of conditions will need to take place. Besides government support, forest landowners will need to recognize, understand and embrace the potential. As a result, as markets for new woody biomass-based energy flourish forest landowners could see price increases for their timber which equates to increased returns. The report also acknowledges that bioenergy should be viewed as a means to boost output per acre while improving forest productivity. According to the report, energy forecasts for bioenergy can begin with harvest residuals and other available wood waste. It’s projected that this would quickly be used up and prompt additional harvesting of raw material, especially softwood pulpwood. Right now demand is declining for this stock so bioenergy needs would offset or even exceed projections.

The report also finds that markets could accommodate about a 40 percent expansion in harvesting by 2060 at  current levels of forest productivity. With this increase would come structural changes to the market. Changes in management plans and harvisting techniques would then shift; landowners and producers would likely plant and harvest differently. Since biomass energy favors softwood pulpwood, planted pine in the South could expand by as much as 28 million acres – from 39 million acres in 2010 to about 67 million acres in 2060, or from 19 to 34 percent of the region’s forests. Much of this would come from conversions of natural pine forests after harvesting.

Here are the conclusions reached in the bioenergy section of the report:

  • “Harvesting woody biomass for use as bioenergy is forecasted to range from 170 to 336 million green tons by 2050, an increase of 54 to 113 percent over current levels.
  • “Consumption forecasts for forest biomass-based energy, which are based on Energy Information Administration projections, have a high level of uncertainty given the interplay between public policies and the supply and investment decisions of forest landowners.
  • “It is unlikely that the biomass requirement for energy would be met through harvest residues and urban wood waste alone. As consumption increases, harvested timber (especially pine pulpwood) would quickly become the preferred feedstock.
  • “The emergence of a new woody biomass based energy market would potentially lead to price increases for merchantable timber, resulting in increased returns for forest landowners.
  • “While woody biomass harvest is expected to increase with higher prices, forest inventories would not necessarily decline because of increased plantations of fast growing species, afforestation of agricultural or pasturelands, and intensive management of forest land.
  • “Because it would allow more output per acre of forest land and dampen potential price increases, forest productivity is a key variable in market futures.
  • “The impacts that increased use of woody biomass for energy would have on the forest products industry could be mitigated by improved productivity through forest management and/or by increased output from currently unmanaged forests.
  • “Price volatility associated with increased use of woody biomass for energy is expected to be higher for pulpwood than for sawtimber.
  • “The impacts of wood based energy markets tend to be lower for sawtimber industries, although markets for all products would be affected at the highest levels of projected demand.
  • “Different types of wood based energy conversion technologies occupy different places on the cost feasibility spectrum. Combined heat and power, co-firing for electricity, and pellet technologies are commercially viable and have good prospects in future. Biochemical and thermochemical technologies used to produce liquid fuels from woody biomass are not yet commercially viable.
  • “Current research does not suggest which woody species and what traits would likely be most successful for energy production. The future of conversion technologies is uncertain.
  • “In the absence of government support, research, pilot projects, and incentives for production and commercialization of woody bioenergy markets are unlikely to develop.
  • “Forecasted levels of woody biomass harvests could lead to a reduction of stand productivity, deterioration of biodiversity, depletion of soil fertility, and a decline in water quality.
  • “Although research provides some guidelines for the design of management to protect various forest ecosystem services, forest sustainability benchmarks for bioenergy are not well defined and existing certification systems have few relevant standards.”

A 60-day public comment period on the draft findings ends on July 17. More information is available at the Futures Project websiteSubmit comments here. The final report will be issued at the end of September 2011.

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