Presenting the Case for a Wood-to-Energy Check-off

By Carlton Owen | September 23, 2013

Divide and conquer is a great military or political strategy when used against an enemy. Not surprisingly, when we divide ourselves, it makes it much easier for our enemies to prevail. When I think about the forest sector, I’m reminded of a line from that great sage Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us!” Is the forest sector, and the pellet industry segment in particular, dividing itself and therefore vulnerable?

As the fastest emerging segment of the broader forest industry sector, pellet fuels have attracted a great deal of attention…from supporters and detractors. I’m no longer caught short by attacks that come from those who make their careers by skewering any who harvest trees. What is concerning, though, is that the wood-to-energy industry segment may be following the path of dividing itself into ever smaller subsegments with too few resources and thus highly vulnerable
Since its inception, the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities has invested its effort to forge a brighter future for the forests and rural communities nested within them. We often try to emulate programs that have succeeded for others wishing to grow their markets and expand support. For example, we’ve focused much attention on agriculture and its use of “commodity check-offs”—what, in U.S. Department of Agriculture lingo, are termed “research and promotion programs.”

From milk to mushrooms these programs have proven to be powerful and sustainable vehicles to help producer segments coalesce around common objectives. It is this concept—focusing on what a segment has in common rather than spotlighting differences—that has served well.

If a benevolent dictator for a day, I would lump all those who depend upon forests as the source of raw materials into a single entity. There wouldn’t be a Pellet Fuels Institute, U.S. Industrial Pellet Association, Biomass Power Association or Biomass Thermal Energy Council. Instead there would be a single group representing “renewable energy users of wood.” Even that group would be a division of a singular Forest Landowners & Forest Products Producers Association that included forest owners as well as wood and paper makers and more. One voice from the broader forest industry sector, well-funded and focused, would be far more effective than many poorly funded voices, each delivering a different message. But, it’s too late for that.

So, what’s the next best thing? In my mind, it would be to have each industry segment—all those who produce a similar product—collaborate to create a commodity check-off. For instance, producers of wood-for-fuels, or green energy, would be included in a “Wood-to-Energy Check-off.” (Pulp mills and sawmills would not be included as their resources are already covered by other check-offs.).

The benefits of such an approach are many. Among them, a long-term, well-funded vehicle to address important research and development needs (e.g. real answers to the carbon balance question; development of advanced products such as densified, torrefied pellets, etc.), as well as science-based information that helps all—consumers and decision makers—operate from a base of sound facts. Unlike public relations campaigns that suffer from too little funding and too limited duration that are all too often undermined by free riders (those who don’t pay their fair share), a check-off would be fair, equitable, flexible and durable.

As we’ve discussed this idea with leaders in the wood-to-energy segment, we’ve heard the same responses we got when we launched the idea for the softwood lumber check-off that is now in place and making a difference. Among the tried-and-true initial responses: Now is not the right time. Others in the segment will gain an advantage over my interests. We can’t afford it. Funds can’t be used for lobbying.

There is an old proverb about the best time to plant an oak. While the perfect time was 80 years ago, today is the best option available. We can’t do anything about yesterday and waiting for a perfect tomorrow won’t do it. For the wood-to-energy segment to have a bright future, today is the best time to start building an approach to research and promotion that will serve for years to come. 

As a “retired benevolent dictator,” my request would be that all factions of this sector gather to craft a brighter future that included a check-off as a foundational tool. In the meantime, to learn more about the power of these tools visit the USDA website with this shortened link:

Author: Carlton Owen
President, CEO, U.S. Endowment for
Forestry and Communities