Can Exporting Renewable Biomass Energy Help American Forests Prosper?

I had the opportunity this past October to attend the United States Industrial Pellet Association’s (USIPA) annual conference in Chicago for the trade organization of wood pellet manufacturers focused on supplying densified wood fuel for electrical generation and industrial heat applications.

Much of the discussion focused on the impending maturation of the European market for biomass power generation juxtaposed to the optimistic expectations of future growth in Korean and Japanese markets, as those two countries seek to substitute some of their coal consumption with biomass. It was a valuable two-day symposium on international trade, carbon economics, sustainability investing, and the manufacturing and marketing trends of wood pellet fuel for electric power generation and Combined Heat and Power (CHP) systems. The conference highlighted the rapid growth and positive benefits of this burgeoning industry and its increasing acceptance by wall street and foreign governments as an important part of a diversified energy mix for the twenty-first century.

One of the obvious, yet notable facts remains that this market segment is built almost entirely upon government mandates, or at the very least encouragement, outside of the United States. Along with LNG, and recently oil, renewable biomass has now become a part of America’s growing strength as an energy provider to the world. All of this was great prelude to a recent trip to Japan, where I accompanied Dr. Indroneil Ganguly from the University of Washington, as we gathered information for his U.S. Forest Service Wood Innovation Grant to analyze the feasibility of exporting densified woody biomass derived from low-value forest thinnings and slash materials from the western United States to Asian power generation and industrial fuel markets.

Several days of meetings with government, academic, NGO, and private industry certainly confirmed the potential of Japanese demand for densified biomass promulgated by government mandates and Feed-In-Tariff programs to address Japan’s carbon reduction commitments by substituting a percentage of their coal burning for renewable wood heat. While the question remains if U.S.A. wood pellet fuel made from forest thinnings can be made economically competitive and reliably available over time, the potential benefits are such that we as an industry should be compelled to investigate further.

Our American forests are an incredible asset that has not always been treated as such. A healthy, well-managed, well balanced forest is an ecological marvel, mitigating environmental pollution and sustaining human and other life health by filtering and purifying the air around us, cleansing and retaining valuable water resources, reducing soil erosion from runoff and wind, providing habitat for countless life forms, and maintaining essential life sustaining carbon-oxygen cycles.

Forests are also an economic miracle. They provide the obvious timber, paper, housing and recreational values, but also renewable forests are the original solar transformer and energy storage battery. Everyday our trees and forest plants combine the sun’s rays, CO2 and water to manufacture and store sugars (i.e. energy), while emitting their waste byproduct of fresh, clean oxygen.

Our ability to utilize this natural energy is essential to create much needed revenues (i.e. dollars) in order to afford to properly manage forestlands and remove excess fuels to help mitigate the terrible costs of catastrophic wildfires to environmental and human health.

Too often a lack of resources leads to poorly managed forests, or even forest landowners that are forced to sell to the next condo developer. Some groups try to miscast the argument as between “natural” (unmanaged) forests and “man-influenced” (managed) forests, while in the real world the choice is often between managed forests, dying forests, or asphalt forests.

The long-term issue is can we create a product from forest residues that will help provide the financial resources to forest landowners that enables them to keep forests as forests — and thereby letting forests do what they do best – sustain our rural and local economies, sustain our environment, sustain our health, sustain our future.

Derek D. Nelson is an affiliate advisor to Forest Business Network LLC and a managing member of Montana-Boston Partners LLC, an advisory firm specializing in helping companies grow through acquisition, or market and product development.


  1. Leaving slash on the ground is essential to maintain ecological health of forests. While removing the log takes out mostly carbon, the slash contains micronutrients as well and decays fairly rapidly, building organic soil. Taking it out for biomass burning impoverishes the soil long term. In addition, a large and growing body of scientific research indicates that toxins and particulates from burning wood are as bad, in some cases worse, than burning coal. Burning forests is not the way to go.

  2. Chris, if you actually went out and looked at such a harvest- you’d notice plenty of slash on the ground. Much breaks off when dragging “whole trees” and they often leave large chunks of wood for one reason or another. Informing foresters about micronutrients like we’re idiots isn’t helpful. All foresters learn that in their first forestry class. But it’s actually a very small amount of the total nutrients on the site that are removed. As for toxins and particulates from burning wood- that’s certainly true if people burn wood in old wood stoves or fireplaces but not so true if burning wood in modern industrial burners. So,biomass is not a perfect form of energy production but neither is any other form of energy production. I presume you are aware that paving over fields and forests to build a solar or wind “farm” is not without ecological consequences but I won’t presume you can’t grasp that. And, it’s a fact that with a biomass market- it’s possible to do better forestry work- but to understand that fully, you might need to take some forestry courses and go look at forestry work.
    Joe Zorzin

    MA Forester Lic. #261

    a good timber harvest in Massachusetts including biomass

    the ecological damage from construction of a solar “farm”