Canadian Biomass Magazine

Battle for Fibre

June 14, 2010
By Bill Tice

With biomass-powered energy production becoming mainstream, fibre allocation and supply have become hot topics.

With biomass-powered energy production becoming mainstream, fibre allocation and supply have become hot topics. This year’s annual Washington State University International Wood Composites Symposium, held in Seattle, Washington, at the end of March, was no exception. A main concern for many attendees, especially manufacturers of wood composite products such as panels and laminated veneer lumber, is the availability and price of wood fibre. Traditionally, these products were made with fibre from sawmill residuals, but some industry experts say that fibre demands from the biomass market are driving raw material costs up and creating supply shortages.

Others say that although the amount of biomass energy produced in the United States is still relatively low, with subsidies, it can still take a bite out of the fibre supply.

Dr. Paul Smith, professor of forest products marketing at Penn State University in University Park, Pennsylvania, gave a talk entitled, “Green Policies and the U.S. Interior Wood Composite Panel Supply Chain.” He said, “We are not going to solve all of our energy problems with wood, obviously, because if you look at the U.S. energy supply, only 7% is renewable. Of that renewable slice about half is biomass, and of the biomass, about one-third is woody biomass. If you do the math, it’s just a little over 1% of the U.S. energy supply that comes from woody biomass. If we double that, we are up to a whopping 2% of our energy supply. I guess you have to start somewhere, but this puts the debate into context, which is important when you look at this Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP).”

BCAP, delivered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency, could provide a $500-million subsidy in 2010 to entities that deliver eligible biomass material to designated biomass conversion facilities for use as heat, power, bio-based products, and biofuels. Eligible materials could be manufacturing and harvest residues, urban waste, pulpwood, and bio-plantation matter. “This is going through hearings, and one of the sticking points is this ‘manufacturing residues,’ which is very controversial,” Smith said. He said that industry must deal with the unintended consequences of government policy.


David Smith, instructor of wood products manufacturing at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon, also discussed BCAP in his talk, entitled, “Wood: the Renewable Fuel.”

“It just amazes me how much attention is being paid these days to the world’s largest use of wood,” he said. “It’s kind of surprising to some people to recognize that we make a lot of industrial and consumer products out of wood but the biggest use of wood in the world is still for energy.”

Smith estimated that the world uses 500 quadrillion BTUs of energy annually, a number he readily conceded is incomprehensible to most people. To put it in perspective, he said it would equal the output from 17,000 Bonneville Dams, which is a giant 20-turbine power facility in the Columbia River Gorge that has almost 1100 MW capacity. Smith said that global energy demand will rise and questioned where future supply will come from. He explained that under BCAP, sawmill operators are welcoming the chance to receive a subsidy by selling sawmill residues to energy generators. “The particleboard, MDF, and hardboard plants are the losers; they are now forced to compete against subsidized energy markets for the little materials the sawmills are generating in this curtailed economy.”

For many people in both the forest and energy industries, it’s a debate that will certainly continue. Discussions at events such as the Wood Composites Symposium can only help in developing a solution.

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