Wood pellets: a growing climate change solution
An interview with Gary Bull, Ph.D. Forestry Economics professor and head of department, University of British Columbia, Department of Forest Resources Management.
November 17, 2020 By The Wood Pellet Association of Canada
The Wood Pellet Association of Canada (WPAC) recently caught up with Gary Bull, professor and head of department at the University of British Columbia’s Department of Forest Resources Management. Bull has a long and distinguished career academically, globally and across resource sectors. He has worked with various government agencies and environmental non-governmental organizations including the Climate and Land Use Alliance, the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis in Vienna, the International Institute for Environment and Development in London, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome, the Sustainable Biomass Partnership, and the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
Below is an excerpt of our conversation.
WPAC: Tell me a bit about yourself.
I grew up in a fishing village in Newfoundland and made my way to the West Coast to escape all things East Coast and ended up in a forestry school. I worked a lot with the forest sector in my early years and then ended up in Rome with the Food and Agricultural Organization for four years, working with industry associations worldwide on global timber supply. I returned to UBC in 2000 where I’ve been ever since.
How did you get involved in bioenergy?
I’ve always been fascinated by trends. I could see that there’s a lot of disruption coming to the pulp and paper sector, decline in demand for certain products, and so this was going to bring great change. I became interested in the idea of what we were going to do with all these residues because we know half the tree is going to end up in some other kind of product besides a piece of lumber. So, it became part of my research interest and because I had worked on a lot of standards over the last 20 years, I could see a link between what we’re going to do with biomass and how we’re going to manage greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), essentially.
How has the wood pellet industry evolved? What trends are you seeing?
For one, the wood pellet industry is getting a lot better at managing information and data. When they started off, for the first few years they didn’t know where the fibre was coming from. We’ve seen, in the last three to four years in particular, a lot more detail and credibility built into the supply chain from the forest to the plants. I think there is an awareness that greenhouse gas management in these supply chains is really important to the story. When I was down in Georgia and saw all the pellet plants powered by coal, you think. “Well, you know, you do have to account for that.” The same thing will happen with natural gas here in B.C. So, there’s learning like that happening and it takes time to adjust to that way of thinking, but the supply chain is adapting.
What stands out for you in the evolution of biomass and pellets?
Well, for one thing, the industry has expanded very quickly, particularly all over North America. The economics were such that you just can’t shift that low-grade material to a pulp mill – the haul distances are too long and, frankly, the local people want the pellet plants because it keeps more jobs in the community. And so we now see communities as defenders of the pellet industry and wanting to see expansion. I also think for Indigenous communities it offers an entry point for them into the business as well.
Do you think the growth of the industry will outstrip the waste fibre available in B.C.?
No, it’s low-grade fibre. The industry is pretty smart. What they’re thinking about in the Interior’s mid-term timber supply is that there is a lot of low-quality fibre out there. What are we going to do to get that off the landscape in order to grow back a healthier forest? That’s the priority.
Most of the pellets are going offshore; why not use them for domestic energy needs?
The pellets will flow where the demand and money is. Canada is exceptionally rich in energy from hydro to natural gas to solar, wind and bioenergy. Frankly, we are spoiled for choice. But you also have to consider the relative populations, too, especially Northern Canada with a tiny population and the total consumption of energy up there is just a tiny drop in the bucket. I’m sure every Canadian pellet producer would be happier to keep pellets at home than export them, but there’s not enough demand in Canada and that’s the whole reason for exports. The Europeans and Asians have embraced bioenergy, while the Canadians haven’t, so there’s opportunity still domestically. I do believe that supply chains are going to change as the global demand for pellets and bioenergy grows.
In your view, are pellets contributing to a carbon sink or a carbon debt?
Canada’s forests are a carbon sink. This idea around “carbon debt” comes out of misperception that forests are static, that they never change. That’s simply not accurate. Forests are dynamic biological systems, especially in the Canadian context. Forests burn up or are susceptible to insects; to put it simply, they change over time, and dramatically.
So, you’ve got to work with nature. The idea that you can just put everything into a protected area and solve the world’s problems is just not realistic. The fact is, fibre that comes from trees is probably the most environmentally benign material we can use on the planet. Add to that, bioenergy comes from forest waste and sawmill residuals. So, considering that, as opposed to any mineral or fossil fuel, why wouldn’t we want to work with pellets?
Can pellets address some of the climate change challenges?
Well, the pellet industry contributes positively, firstly by not having it burnt up on the landscape; secondly, it replaces fossil fuels; and thirdly, we are constantly evolving the technology that even in the burning is improving all the time. Lots of work is going into biological carbon capture as part of industry’s business plan.
There’s significant interest in the future of solar and wind power; will pellets eventually be replaced by those energy sources?
There’s never one solution to a problem. We know that the big problem for wind and solar is that it’s not base load. It’s intermittent power. Until they come up with some fantastic batteries, you need some way to deal with that base load and biomass is a great solution to creating a stable energy source when the winds are not blowing and the sun is not shining. I find it fascinating in the media whenever they talk about renewables, they talk wind and solar but they do not mention biomass or even hydro.
What’s the future for pellets?
I see a continued significant expansion because low-grade fibre makes up such a significant portion of what we cut, and has got to have a home. And I don’t think its going to be pulp. When was the last time you saw a new pulp mill being built in Canada? It’s just not happening. So, it’s got to go somewhere or else it’s just going to go up in smoke out in the bush and no one wants that.
Right now, we are focused on pellets for energy, but down the road we will see wood biomass being used for other innovative uses and products. In some cases, pellets will become too valuable to burn; there’s lots of great research going into this now. But, we’ve got to remember it all starts with a pellet, so I think the future is very bright for this sector.
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