2016 PFI conference underway in Asheville, North Carolina

By Katie Fletcher | July 25, 2016

The Pellet Fuels Institute returns to Asheville, North Carolina, for its annual conference being held July 24-26, hosting approximately 170 attendees and nearly 30 exhibitors.

The conference program began with a welcome from outgoing PFI chairman Stephen Faehner, president and CEO of American Wood Fibers, followed by keynote speaker Tim Martin, president and CEO of the American Forest Foundation.

Faehner hit the high notes of PFI’s relevance for the pellet fuel industry, including the increasing success of its standards program. The PFI Standards Program now has 26 certified facilities, many of which who have become qualified just within the past year. Faehner said that these facilities represent around 2.6 million tons of pellet production capacity.

Martin’s keynote speech set the tone of the conference with emphasis on the AFF’s North American Forest Partnership initiative that is to launch this September. The program includes a collection of in-depth research, case studies, social media audits, etc. to create a database of information, which can then be used to learn how the forest products industry can tailor a more receptive story to skeptics of biomass use within the general public. One of the challenges he said is that environmental champions are the ones currently driving the story and that the forest products industry needs to take control and tell its side. There is opportunity for this. According to Martin’s research, many people are undecided about the forest sector, and the initiative has great opportunity to educate this “moveable middle.” The data Martin presented showed that three in five (64 percent) of respondents are unsure if the forest sector is environmentally sustainable or unsustainable.

Martin offered that the industry needs to provide audiences with more information via channels and sources they trust. “People trust people more than the sector itself,” he said. Thus, Martin suggested the forest products industry bridge the divide by leading with stories that highlight the focus and passion of people who work in the sector. “Our storytelling portal enables sector members to tell their story and engage audiences in dialogue on our priorities and activities,” he shared in his presentation.

Another hopeful factor derived from the results is that 84 percent are interested in learning more about the sector. Unfortunately, to date, misperceptions have driven the reputation of the industry due to myths and misinformation. Martin shared four points skeptics want to hear and that the forest products industry needs to drive forward in its messaging. These points include emphasizing that 1) every part of a harvested tree is used and has value; 2) not all forested areas are harvested; 3) mistakes have occured but the industry is continually improving; 4) when a tree comes down, another comes up in its place, whether through natural regeneration or replanting.

Martin said that currently there are gaps in messaging, not only externally between the forest sector and the rest of the general public, but also internally. The initiative is building a set of shared resources for all organizations within the forest products industry (agencies, conservation groups, companies, trade associations, universities, foresters, professional associations, landowners) with materials for things like tailored customer channels, training program for employees, brochures for recruitment, social media messages, website development, etc. The other goal of the initative is to build a community to find and leverage common ground. Martin said that over 10 million are employed within the forest products supply chain and are landowner members, and if the effort can achieve just 1 percent participation, 100,000 will be engaged. “We need to jointly fund this and jointly learn how to tell these stories and learn how to push them to the public,” Martin said.

Following the discussion on how the North American Forest Partnership can help industry tell its story better was an update of relevant state and federal policy work from Charlie Niebling with Innovative Natural Resource Solutions LLC and Patrick Rita with Orion Advocates. Both shared the importance the upcoming election will have on either moving biomass use forward in policy or constraining its use. The implementation of the Clean Power Plan is said to rely upon who is elected. Also, they said the precedent of the biogenic carbon emissions framework EPA has been working on setting is very important in driving the inclusion of biomass in supportive policies and legislation.

Niebling shared some examples of state and regional policy advances for pellet heating. One example he provided of biomass thermal gaining more attention in state energy policy and planning is with Vermont's recent goal to achieve 35 percent of all heat energy from biomass sources by 2030.

Another example that Niebling said is on the cusp of implementation is the addition of renewable heating technologies in Massachusetts’ RPS. Although recognizing biomass in state RPS programs has been somewhat a Northeast phenomenon, Niebling said it's now becoming manifest in the Northwest. In the last couple months, Oregon’s governor signed legislation to provide renewable energy certificates for renewable heat from biomass power.

Niebling named a number of other examples of states including thermal biomass in their energy plans, RPS programs and grant programs, as well as offering rebates for pellet appliances, tax credits and even thermal renewable energy credits or T-RECs, which New Hampshire has pioneered the use of for sustainably produced heating and cooling.

While Niebling zeroed in on the regional and state level, Rita covered a few federal-level initiatives. He began his presentation by discussing how entrenched the pellet industry’s initiatives are in electoral policy. He said the new majority holds the pen on writing the new tax code, energy policy and on a number of other environmental issues.

He referenced the Biomass Thermal Utilization Act, which was up for inclusion in conjunction with the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act earlier this year. However, the tax package fell apart, and the hope is it will be reconsidered at the years’ end. Nevertheless, the good news, Rita said, is the BTU Act provisions are now part of the conversation. Both Rita and Niebling said nothing will be decided before the election, but there is hope that some decisions will be made during the narrow window at the end of the year between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Other content for the day included a conversation on industry standards with an update from Faehner on PFI Standards as well as a discussion of wood pellet durability by Dr. Robert Rice at the University of Maine. After lunch, attendees received an overarching global pellet market update. Bill Strauss shared FutureMetrics outlook for both industrial and heating pellet markets, and the perspectives of two big industry players Enviva and Drax Biomass were heard.

Enviva’s John Paul (JP) Taylor said global industrial wood pellet demand is expected to grow to more than 29 million tons by 2020, a 17-percent annual growth rate. The panel identified Japan as the country where growth is expected to be strong. Japanese demand by 2030 is expected to reach 10 million tons. Taylor said wood pellets from the U.S. South and Pacific Northwest have the potential to be sourced cost-competitively by Japan.

Monday’s conference program wrapped with a discussion of technology and plant operations, covering everything from maintenance plans, OSHA issues relevant to producers and updates on white and biocoal pellets from Airex Energy.