A New Era
By Bill Tice
Looking around the forest industry these days, I keep asking myself if our sector as we know it is in the midst of a historical shift. And I’m not talking about the financial crisis that we all know is happening right now. Some things will change with the economic volatility we are currently experiencing, but the reality is we will emerge from it. What I’m referring to is the biomass industry that seems to be engulfing almost every aspect of forestry. Wood harvesting is becoming synonymous with biofuel and biomass production and this is impacting how we harvest, where we harvest, what we harvest, and what we do with the residual fibre from the manufacturing processes.
By Bill Tice
Just take a look at the number of times biomass, bio-energy or biofuel comes up at forest industry conferences around the globe. You would be hard-pressed to find a conference or trade show that doesn’t have “bio something” on the agenda. There are even events that are strictly dedicated to biomass and bioenergy. Plus, there are numerous industry publications covering the biomass and bioenergy sectors, including our sister publication – Canadian Biomass, a copy of which is inserted in this issue of Canadian Forest Industries. Even just three short years ago this level of coverage and interest in what is essentially wood waste would have been unheard of. However, maybe this couldn’t come at a better time. As many loggers, wood products producers, equipment manufacturers and transportation companies suffer huge losses from reduced prices and demand for wood products, the industry seems to be welcoming the bioworld with open arms as a possible new revenue stream.
The Elmia Wood 2009 Trade Fair held in early June in Sweden was a perfect example. The event is billed as the world’s largest forestry trade fair and a large number of the exhibitors on hand introduced or promoted equipment related to biomass. Huge grinders and mulchers churned out wood fibre in almost every corner of the 150 hectare site, while many of the traditional forest industry equipment manufacturers demonstrated the latest in biomass technology, including harvesting and stump grinding heads. Almost every one of the well choreographed demos included numerous mentions of biomass and bioenergy harvesting. Even the show organizers jumped on the bandwagon with a full section of the trade fair dedicated to bioenergy. It was also the main topic of a one day conference put on by Elmia just prior to the opening of the trade fair. Held in the nearby city of Jonköping, over 130 attendees from approximately 30 countries listened to speakers discuss bioenergy as it relates to the wood products industry, and many took in an additional day of site visits to see how it is done, Scandinavian style.
Here in North America, there has also been a huge surge of interest in biomass with numerous companies, large and small, investigating opportunities for pellet plants, power plants that can run on residuals from forest harvesting and wood products manufacturing, and biofuel. Forestry giant Weyerhaeuser has already teamed up with oil producer Chevron to form a 50-50 joint venture company with the mandate of researching and developing technology for converting cellulose-based biomass into economical, low-carbon biofuels. The two companies say the formation of the joint venture, called Catchlight Energy LLC, “reflects the parent companies’ shared view that nonfood biofuels will play an important role in diversifying the nation’s energy supply.” Just the fact that these two huge companies are investing in biofuel sends a clear signal that they feel there is a future in this rapidly expanding sector.
But is it all good news out there when it comes to biomass? Maybe not. For starters, companies participating in biomass have to look at cost. In the forest industry, moving low quality wood fibre from a logging block that can be 200 kilometres or more from the nearest energy plant can far outweigh the return when the power generated from that fibre is sold. And if you are building a plant that is going to rely on residual fibre from sawmills, you may want to consider that your fibre supply could be disrupted when sawmill production is curtailed, as is the case at many sawmills right now. A production stoppage at the supplying sawmill can translate into a lack of residual fibre, forcing energy producers to source more expensive wood fibre from further afield, or even worse, shutdown the power plant.
Although entering the biomass business will not be easy for most, and it will have its pitfalls, this new direction for many is creating optimism in an otherwise challenging market. It is helping to keep some loggers off the unemployment line, and is giving equipment manufacturers some hope for added sales in these tough times. Where these new paths will take the forest industry, we don’t really know. However, we may look back on these turbulent times in a few years and say it was the start of a new era in the forest industry.
Bill Tice, Editor