Drax Addresses Biomass Supply Sustainability Risks

An official from Drax Power recently made the statement that the company’s biggest unquantified risk is ensuring the sustainability of its biomass fuel.
By Lisa Gibson | May 11, 2012

An official from Drax Power recently made the statement that the company’s biggest unquantified risk is ensuring the sustainability of its biomass fuel.

Drax, one of the largest power producers in the U.K., co-fires in its largest power station and has been back and forth on whether it will actually develop its proposed dedicated biomass facilities. Government support is the biggest issue the company has pointed to, but it sounds like sustainably sourced feedstock supply ranks right up there with it.

And it is a risk. Forest certification programs do exist, but, similar to standard systems for wood pellets, they are all over the map. So many programs in play and most, if not all, are confusing for landowners, as well as buyers. The supply is there, but making sure it’s meeting evolving sustainability criteria is a whole different ball game. Drax has stopped contracts because of a lack of provision data, which clearly violates the company’s strict sustainability rules across all stages “from field to furnace.”

The U.K. does have sustainability rules in place and the European Union is considering regulations. And about 19 percent of U.S. forests are certified to three major U.S. standards.  But different programs come with different rules and categories, complicating the process for companies like Drax that source their biomass from both the U.K. and North America.

I see the problem and recognize the potential nightmare for Drax and others. It seems RWE worked around it by building its own pellet mill in the U.S. and sourcing all its biomass from that mill and the same forests that consistently follow the same standards.

It may be an impossible task, but I think the best scenario is one that involves a biomass industry-wide forest certification and sustainability set of standards, regardless of country. No questions. No confusion. I realize different forest types, soil types and locations will have different standards, and it’s a big job, probably bigger than I can fathom.

But ensuring the sustainability of a biomass feedstock source is not an issue to take lightly. Suppliers need to take notice because I can promise that Drax is not the only company that has or will stop a contract and refuse to buy feedstock on the grounds that they were provided inadequate sustainability data. And I wouldn’t blame them.


2 Responses

  1. Paul Leas



    FSC may be the best but not always the best option in my opinion. In the SE USA, with the number of relatively small landowners accounting for approximately 85-90% of the forest ownership, FSC Chain of custody certification for large biomass export contracts is not practically achievable. The American Tree Farm system, logging best management practices and other practices help the small landowners grow wood responsibly and, if desired by the landowner, sustainably. It's all supply and demand driven. If the EU wants a certain level of certification and other countries don't require the same level, then guess where the chips land (or fall)!

  2. Stan Parton



    The EU has good cause for concern for sustainability of the feedstock for renewable fuels. Some years ago the EU stimulated the growth of biodiesel through regulations and mandates. However an unintended consequence these drivers put in place was that in certain regions tropical rain forests were cleared in order to plant Palm Oil plantations. Subsequently, some countries of the EU banned biodiesel manufactured from this oil. This recent experience is in their ‘corporate’ memory and they certainly don’t want to create a similar situation from the added demand for solid biomass fuels. As Lisa points out ‘sustainability’ is a multi-faceted issue. Certifications of the forest will play an important part of the solution of demonstrating sustainability. However forest certification alone doesn’t ensure the desired outcome any more than ISO certification assures quality products. We must not lose sight that at its core sustainability must assure BIOLOGICAL sustainability, i.e. growing more forest materials than we remove. This entails analytics – confidently knowing the forest growth as well as accurately knowing current forest removals in a specific supply region. Both data sets must be well established. The US Forest service has reasonably reliable data on forest current inventory and growth. But that is only half of the data required. The USFS TPO data isn’t either quantitative or current enough to give confidence in actual forest removals at a sufficiently granular level to assure sustainability of a specific supply region. However, in certain regions of the US, particularly in the US South and Pacific Northwest Forest2Market collects data on over 80% of the timber transactions moving from the forest. In the product types of wood used for solid biomass fuels Forest2Market has over 90% of all transactions and in certain regions has 100% of the transactions. This provides the current removals data required to establish the actual sustainability of the supplying forest. Certainly this analytical calculation of Growth:Removals will not be all that will be required to establish sustainability of supply. Forest2Market looks forward to participating with the industry in providing the solutions that will ultimately be necessary to not only calculate sustainability of supply but to provide the requisite documents for proof of sustainability.


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