Seeing is Believing

Previewing a week long, whistle-stop tour through the deep South's robust inventory of forests, networking with landowners and UK power generators.
By Tim Portz | June 03, 2014

I’m somewhere over Missouri. Maybe Oklahoma. Wherever I am, I’m headed for Baton Rouge by way of New Orleans. This week will find me in various locales in Louisiana and Mississippi, largely to see, think about and talk about forests and their relationship to the growing pellet sector. Originally, I would have simply flown in and out of New Orleans at the request of Scott Jones, of the Forest Landowners Association. I met Scott last fall at the Exporting Pellets conference in Miami and within four months of our meeting we were exchanging speaking invitations. The opportunity to immerse myself in an annual conversation amongst people who own forested acres would have been enough by itself. 

As it happens, I’m lucky enough that just up the road from New Orleans, Drax Biomass is bringing together a small group of British and American journalists to have a close look at the forested acres that will ultimately contribute fiber for the production of the pellets their power station in Yorkshire requires. That isn’t all. After inspecting tracts of forest, each in a different place in the harvest/regrowth cycle we’ll be shown the progress at one of the pellet plants Drax is building as well as the pellet storage and handling infrastructure being built at the Port of Greater Baton Rouge to facilitate the shipping of the produced pellets.

Not surprisingly for anyone that has spent more than two weeks in the renewable energy business, Drax and their transition towards low carbon biomass inputs has its detractors.  While the value proposition of replacing geologic carbon based inputs with biogenic carbon based inputs is well understood by those of us working in this industry, it does not enjoy widespread public acceptance. While this is unfortunate, it is inevitable. The production of energy and food at the scale the humanity now requires defies comprehension and pivoting away from one input, towards another has a tendency to make people nervous. So, people have to be shown.

I think the first thing that citizens of the United Kingdom need to be shown, via the reporters that will be on the tour, is how vast North American forest inventories are. The total area of the United Kingdom is just over 94,000 square miles or roughly the same size as Louisiana and Mississippi together. Moreover, forested acres just are not that prevalent in the United Kingdom with just over 10% of total area described as “wooded”.  Stated simply, the forests in the southeastern United States for most people has to be seen to be believed. Another interesting difference worth pointing out is the nature of forest ownership in the United States as compared to the UK. Over 80% of forests east of the Mississippi are privately owned and managed to serve the interests of private landowners. In the UK, private land ownership lags land ownership in the US with just 60% of all land being privately held. Taken together it isn’t surprising to learn that just 10% of the forest products used by the UK’s 60 million inhabitants come from domestic inventories. The UK imports the vast majority of its wood fiber regardless of how it is used and it should come as no surprise that this same reality will typify the wood pellets that make their way into Drax and other power producer’s boilers.

I’m grateful for the invitation to join this contingent of story tellers and privileged to be able to share what I see with all of you. The story will ultimately be told here and in print editions of both Biomass Magazine and Pellet Mill Magazine. The September issue of Biomass Magazine focuses on the sustainability so this opportunity is well timed.  Finally, I’ll do my best to post pictures on both my personal Twitter account @TimPortz as well as the @BiomassMagazine twitter handle. 

Blog Addendum: While in transit and authoring this blog, my colleague Erin Voegele published this very thorough account of the Obama administration’s plan to drive 30% of the carbon out of the nation’s power generation infrastructure. This may well be the most important news item we will publish this year. Voegele reports that biomass feedstocks are repeatedly mentioned as a likely means of compliance. The UK Parliament, of course, has already come to the same conclusion and their transition to lower carbon inputs is the whole reason I’m in the deep South, seeing what I’m seeing.