A New Level of Transparency

Enviva's new Track & Trace system is unprecedented when it comes to documenting and sharing feedstock sourcing data.
By Anna Simet | June 01, 2017

The South has some of the most dynamic, diverse, complex, and productive forestlands in the nation. Eighty-nine percent of the South’s 212 million acres of forestland is privately owned. These forests provide a significant measure of the nation’s demand for goods and services such as clean water, fresh air, wildlife, recreation, wood fiber and jobs.

The above description is taken verbatim from the U.S. Forest Service website, and as the majority of southerners and forest industry stakeholders know, it’s perfectly accurate. In the Southeast, just as in other regions with forestry-engrained economies, forests must remain forests in order for landowners to maintain their livelihoods, a concept that is widely misunderstood when it comes to managing and harvesting tree stands in various stages of growth, particularly when the some of the material end use is for wood pellets.

Helping disprove inaccurate mainstream media reports and environmental group claims of deforestation and clearcutting, as well as a range of other useful purposes, pellet producer Enviva has devised a solution to provide a much greater level of transparency into its fuel sourcing. A system that not only divulges to the public, regulators and customers the general location, landowner, forest and harvest type, as well as age class, harvested acreage and percent sent to Enviva, but also requires Enviva’s fiber suppliers to provide further data, a small portion of which remains undisclosed to protect landowner privacy. If a supplier chooses not to provide the information, Enviva won’t accept the fiber.
“They’ll be turned away at the gate,” says Jennifer Jenkins, Enviva vice president and chief sustainability officer. Jenkins’s career history makes her a good fit for her role at Enviva, having a technical background in land atmospheric carbon exchange focused on biomass estimation and forested systems, as well as employment history at the U.S. EPA, where she quantified biogenic carbon emissions from stationary sources, the U.S. Forest Service and the University of Vermont as a professor.

Jenkins and her team are responsible for the creation of a system and processes for sourcing wood that are consistent with forestry values, she says. “We manage the Track & Trace System and its publication, we manage our certification systems, and we maintain triple chain-of-custody systems, as well as Sustainable Biomass Partnership certification. And we have a team of sustainable foresters on the ground who interact with our fiber procurement team and support them in their work.”

Jenkins’s team is also responsible for interacting with regulatory agencies and policymakers in the U.S. and European Union, as well as Enviva target customer countries to stay abreast of sustainability policies as they are developed and updated. “We also communicate with our stakeholders, customers, potential customers, NGO groups, etc., about the work that we do,” she says. 

Data to Date
Enviva has six wood pellet plants at locations in Ahoskie, Northampton County and Sampson County in North Carolina; in Southampton County, Virginia; Amory, Mississippi, and Cottondale, Florida. So far, the company has archived fiber sourcing data from January to June 2016, and from April to September 2016. That data reveals that from April through September, Enviva sourced wood from 1,100 different tracts, from 78 counties in five southern states. For material, 27 percent was residue purchased from sawmills, and the majority of the remainder from mixed pine and hardwood forests (38 percent), and southern yellow pine forests (27 percent). On average, the forests on harvested tracks were 35 years of age at final harvest. “As we approach [fiber sourcing], our goal is to make sure that, for every tract we purchase, harvesting was the right thing to do for that tract, at that time,” Jenkins says. “It begins at the supplier, who provides information about the tracts to an Enviva forester. That information includes the GPS coordinates, specific latitude and longitude coordinates, basic information about the forest characteristics on that site, forest type, stand age, and what proportion of the volume from that tract will be delivered to Enviva—the rest of it will go to other local forest products markets.”

Details about the tract are stored on the T&T data base, and if the supplier arrives at a facility before the information has been added to the system, they will be turned away.

“We developed this on our own,” Jenkins says. “We started the process years ago, and we had to work closely with our suppliers to encourage them to give us this level of information. They aren’t used to sharing trackable data with their customers, and as far as we know, there is no other forest products company that has gone to this level of detail or made this kind of commitment to tract-by-tract information gathering.”

Enviva began by communicating early on with suppliers what the intent of T&T was, and that the data would be published. “We have good relationships with our suppliers, and haven’t had any pushback from that community,” she says.

Suppliers are provided privacy, however, as detailed tract locations aren’t given away. “The online map coordinates are fuzzed, so someone wouldn’t be able to locate the tract just based on the map, though the general location is shown,” she says. “That was important to us—we didn’t want to compromise our ability to continue to work with our suppliers by inundating their privacy.”

A full year’s worth of data is available and published online.  As far as findings go, Jenkins says nothing particularly surprising has been discovered on the sourcing side, but the data has been useful in a way that Enviva hadn’t necessarily anticipated. “In terms of what we’re sourcing, it’s very consistent with what we expected, but what we learned is that we’ve been able to demonstrate and underline the way our operations fit within broad context of the Southeast U.S. industrial landscape,” she says. “We’ve been able to use that data to help tell a story.”

Part of that story is that since Enviva established operations in its supply regions, forest area and forest inventory have increased in some areas. “There are a lot of factors that go into changes in forest area and inventory, but we’re pretty confident that we’re contributing to a positive development,” she says. “The mid-Atlantic region, in which we established our first mill in 2011, since then, the trends have only been positive in forest area and inventory, and that’s demonstrated and made clear and transparent—we hope—on our T&T mapping system.”

And, data from the T&T system, which was shortlisted for a 2017 Innovation Award by the U.K. Renewable Energy Association in April, has been of interest to the academic community, according to Jenkins. “We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback, as the data has removed some of the guesswork and uncertainty about how we fit within the larger forestry landscape. Answering questions and criticisms with data, we believe, is a very powerful tool. Clear-cuts just for the pellet industry are not taking place—not for biomass hardwood for the pellet industry. We’ve been able to show that.”

And, response from customers has been very positive. “To date, the bar for the pellet industry has been certification,” she says. “That’s been what the customers require in order to endorse, from a third-party perspective, the sustainable, responsible sourcing of the wood that goes into the pellets. With T&T, we’ve been able to take it a step further, going beyond certification. It’s not just a tract-level, data management tool for us, it’s a transparency tool that has been very valuable. I have to believe that, in the future, this kind of data-driven transparency will be required. We encourage it, and we think it’s a good thing for the industry overall.”

Author: Anna Simet
Managing Editor, Pellet Mill Magazine

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Enviva Track & Trace System Required Data

• Timber vendor that purchased stumpage and harvesting rights.
• Logging contractor/crew to perform harvest.
• Landowner who sold harvesting rights to supplier.
• Tract name or identifying feature.
• State and county, tract location.
• Landowner type.
• Age class: 10-year range estimate of forest age.
• Harvest type: Final harvest, thinning, selection harvest, or other.
• Estimated acres to be harvested.
• Intent to reforest: Yes, no, or N/A (in case of thinnings). If ‘no’ is chosen, transaction is aborted.
• GPS coordinates: Tract geolocation in decimal degrees.
• Estimated percent of total volume from harvest that is sent to Enviva.
• Majority forest cover type.
• Certification type, number and description.

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