n:w explains
August 25, 2021

Pellets: what the world wants and the planet needs

Over the next 5 years, it is estimated that the demand for wood pellets will increase 40 percent to nearly 51 million metric tonnes per year. The growing demand is driven, in large part, by countries around the world that are striving to meet ambitious climate targets in the face of an ever-warming planet.

pinnacle fibre truck

Pinnacle Renewable Energy Prince George, BC | Photo credit: Wood Pellet Association of Canada 

Governments must consider a range of energy alternatives to expedite a steadfast transition away from fossil fuelsIn Japan, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declared that the Nation will aim for net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This means revising Japan’s policy on coal-fired power plants and establishing a platform for national and regional governments to achieve decarbonization.  

Sustainability

Not all biomass is created equal

At the Asian Wood Pellet Conference, there was agreement among attendees that not all biomass is created equal and steps are being taken to ensure biomass is delivering on its promise of displacing coal and fossil energy with an immediate and renewable fuel source.

“Governments are undertaking detailed discussions aimed at developing sustainability criteria to evaluate various biomass energy inputs,” said Takanobu Aikawa, PhD, Senior Researcher at the Renewable Energy Institute. “These are predicated on three pillars of sustainability—measuring GHG reduction impacts, evaluating land sustainability practices and ensuring traceability.”

Verifying sustainability end-to-end

Examining wood pellet supply chain emissions

It is the rigour of the movement behind the bioeconomy that prompted a recent Wood Pellet Association of Canada commissioned studyexamining the supply chain calculations of 17 Western Canadian wood pellet plants and two pellets plans from southeast US. Joseph (Joe) Aquino, Director of Sustainability at Pinnacle Renewable Energy, who helped lead on this study, provides key highlights of this comprehensive study.   

Q: What was the impetus for the study?

Canada has the second largest land mass in the world and we have more certified forest land than anywhere else backed by a comprehensive set of regulations to ensure our forests are managed not just for today but forever. Wood pellets are derived from the residuals of  harvesting and sawmilling. That’s all fine and good; but the fact is more than 90 percent of all of Canada’s wood pellets are exported; with the nearest customer, Japan, nearly 4,600 nautical miles way. Our customers, as end users, were already tracking and reporting their GHG emissions, but the question became how western Canada’s wood pellets compared to coal when it comes to emissions savings. 

Ship at pier at the Port of Vancouver facility, North Vancouver, BC | Photo credit: Wood Pellet Association of Canada 

Q: How was the study conducted?

With funding from the Government of Canada, we engaged Laborelec, a global research and solutions organization that supports and accelerates efforts to transition towards a carbon-neutral world, through reduced energy consumption and more environmentally-friendly solutions to do this work.  

Working with Laborelec, we began with collecting credible data from WPAC wood pellet producers and landing on a single calculation methodology. We used third-party audited GHG reports for each of the 17 plants we studied. We also relied on the most widely accepted default values (g C02/MJ) from the European Union’s Joint Research Centre. 

 All the companies that participated are certified to the Sustainable Biomass Program requires plants to produce Sustainability Audit Reports that report on third-party certified data that includes a number of factors such as, feedstock, processing technique, transport data—essentially every component of the supply chain that led the pellets to Japan. It provides a complete picture of the sector in Western Canada, which is exciting!  

Example calculations from one of the 17 mills used in the study | Image: Wood Pellets Association of Canada 

Q: What were the results?

The results showed that wood pellets fired in Japan produced only 8.37 percent of the GHG emissions produced by coal (more than a 91 percent reduction). Another example shows wood pellets from the Southern US State of Alabama, a much longer sea journey, still only produced 20.08 percent of the emissions produced by coal (nearly an 80 percent reduction). 

 The study demonstrates that regardless of the length of the journey when it comes to GHG emissions, bioenergy wins hands down. While wind and solar power remain important solutions to managing emissions; it is pellets that provide an immediate, reliable and sustainable form of energy that delivers much-needed stability to the electrical grid. 

Sea distance between Western Canada and Alabama to Japan | Image: Wood Pellet Association of Canada 

Q: If you could make sure the public knew just one thing about wood pellets, what would it be?

Increasing demand for sustainably sourced wood pellets generates two big wins for the planetthey reduce global GHG emissions and minimize the impact of harvest residuals.  

Photo: Wood debris and low-quality logs that would otherwise be burned or left to rot are an important source of fibre for pellets | Image: Wood Pellet Association of Canada 

Verifying the pellet carbon story

The supply chain study used the methodology set by the Joint Research Center of the European Commission to calculate GHG emissions from Canadian wood pellets and compare those emissions to coal. The study confirms that regardless of the length of the journey when it comes to GHG emissions, bioenergy from wood pellets offers substantial GHG savings.

Ship loading | Photo credit: Wood Pellet Association of Canada 

BC catchment area analysis

Making a positive impact through the circular economy

Arborvitae Environmental Services Ltd., in partnership with the Department, Forest Resources Management at The University of British Columbia, was engaged by Drax, one of the largest customers of Canadian wood pellets, to conduct a Catchment Area Analysis in the Houston / Burns Lake area of northern BC to ensure that its energy is not having a negative impact on forests.  

This detailed assessment of the impact of fibre sourcing on the environment, climate, and forest industry within the catchment areas specifically looked at: 

  • Forest composition, growing stock and growth rate  
  • Deforestation and forest degradation
  • Changes in forest management practices  
  • Wood prices and other markets that use wood  
  • Amount of carbon stored on the landscape (growing stock)  
  • Sequestration rate of carbon (productivity of forests)  
  • Harvesting levels versus productive capacity of area 

Second growth forest | Photo credit: Michael Bednar 

Drawing conclusions

Will demand for pellets influence sustainable forest management practices?

The report concludes that pellet demand has had no influence on forest management practices other than more complete use of harvested trees, leading to reduced slash burning. Because the pellet mills primarily use mill residuals, and a minor amount of ground slash and low-quality logs that would otherwise be burned or left to rot in the logged area, harvest levels are not impacted by pellet production. The study also concluded that there were no negative effects on other participants in the local forest industry.  

The report highlights British Columbia’s forest management systems and regulations, along with the significant efforts that have been undertaken in the region to respond to the mountain pine beetle epidemic—salvaging damaged forests and undertaking significant reforestation efforts to return the area to healthy, productive forest cover. 

Tree planting at Bear Lake, BC | Photo credit: Michael Bednar