Japan's Rising Pellet Sun

As wood pellet imports in Japan begin to accelerate, industry professionals offer cautious optimism that an Asian market opportunity for North American producers has arrived.
By Tim Portz | November 14, 2016

In July, Japan imported 52,000 tons of wood pellets, eclipsing the previous monthly high of 51, 500 tons set in December 2015. Additionally, monthly volumes in 2016 have been more consistent in contrast to the peaks and valleys that defined 2014 and 2015. As a result, Japan is expected to finish 2016 having imported between 350,000 and 400,000 tons of wood pellets and producers around the world are optimistic that Japan’s wood pellet demand is set to rise steadily to 1 million tons per year within the next handful of years.

The on-again, off-again nature of Japan’s pellet imports has been replaced by steady monthly volumes largely because of what industry analysts think will be the first of perhaps a dozen dedicated biomass power or biomass combined-heat-and-power (CHP) facilities came online in November 2015. The 49 MW Showa Shell biomass power plant in the Kanagawa prefecture, just south of Tokyo, will generate enough power for 89,000 homes, all from biomass.

“That plant will use around 150,000 to 200,000 tons of pellets per year,” says Seth Walker, senior economist at RISI. “So that is a step change from when the market was using 80,000 tons per year for limited cofiring and other uses.” The facility in Showa Shell is the kind of independent power producer currently eligible to receive a feed-in tariff (FIT) established by the country’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in 2012.

The program obligates large utilities to buy increasing amounts of renewable power under long-term contracts. The price per kilowatt hour for power from wood pellets is 24 yen (22 cents per kWh) and the duration of these offtake agreements is set at 20 years.

“The feed-in tariff at today’s exchange rate is somewhere around 24 [yen] a kWh, which is extremely generous,” says William Strauss, president at FutureMetrics. “You can afford some pretty expensive fuel when you are paid that much for your electricity.”

The long-term FIT contracts, like the one enjoyed by the operators at Showa Shell, are, in turn, generating long-term pellet offtake agreements, a far more palatable business scenario for North American producers than the short-term tender arrangements favored by South Korean buyers.

“I’ve gotten the impression that Korean buyers are fine to burn $100 per ton Vietnamese pellets as long as they can get them and as many as they can get to meet their Renewable Portfolio Standard,” Walker says. “The Japanese on the other hand are able to offer contracts for as long as the Europeans or even longer to pellet producers.”

This is all welcome news to Canadian producers and serves as a nice salve against the disappointment they experienced in South Korea as they watched the bulk of the market get gobbled up by low-cost producers in Vietnam. For now, Canada is the clear market leader for wood pellets delivered to Japan. According to the UN Comtrade database, Canada contributed 158,000 of the 190,000 tons of wood pellets Japan imported through July, or 83 percent of the total volume.

“The Japanese, in general, value long-term security of supply and a counterparty that they know is legally logging and is procuring sustainable feedstock through some sort of monitoring scheme,” Strauss says. “The Canadians have all of that.”

Palm Kernel Shell
Still, to say that Canadian wood pellet producers are the clear market leader in Japan is only half right and misses a key part of the biomass story inside the country. The same FIT program that has underwritten demand for wood pellets has also led to a dramatic increase in imports of palm kernel shell (PKS) a byproduct of palm oil production. The UN Comtrade database shows that PKS imports into Japan nearly doubled in 2015 to over 450,000 tons and the monthly average in 2016 through July is 50,000 tons per month.

Virtually all of Japan’s imported PKS volumes originate in Indonesia or Malaysia, with Malaysia enjoying a slight advantage over Indonesia with 195,000 tons exported to Japan against Indonesia’s 150,000 tons. PKS volumes are also moving at a significant discount to wood pellets with monthly per-ton averages hovering around $100 per ton, roughly half the price being paid for wood pellets. Whether PKS can keep pace and grow in proportion with the more hopeful forecasts for biomass demand in Japan remains to be seen but it is important to note that PKS availability is tightly correlated to palm oil production.

“There’s some concern about the sustainability of supply,” Strauss says. “In last week’s Argus Biomass Report there was a story about reaching the limits of PKS supply. Some reckoning the limit is maybe 1 million tons per year.”

Gordon Murray, executive director at the Wood Pellet Association of Canada, has been directed by his membership to make the most of the foothold they have in Japan. “My charge is to make sure that the Japanese customers understand that Canadian pellets are available, that they are high quality and that there is an established supply chain with reputable suppliers who are stable and well-financed, and that our fiber is sourced from the most sustainably managed forests anywhere,” he says. “We’re not going to lower our standards to try to compete on price with low-cost producers in Southeast Asia. We’ll go about growing our business by building on our strengths.”

Beyond Independent Power Producers
Murray’s members and biomass producers throughout the world are all speculating on likely demand growth trajectories in Japan. For now, Japan’s FIT program is limited to independent power producers operating smaller, dedicated biomass power or biomass CHP facilities. “The jump in imported volumes late last year was from Showa Shell coming online,” Walker says. “There are a few more of those in the pipeline and those plants are getting their 24 yen per KWh, 20-year contracts, I think. Some of those are using domestic biomass, but moving forward, some others are looking at wood chips and wood pellets and, just on the pellet side, I think that could be roughly a million-ton market.”

While steady growth to 1 million tons per year would certainly be a shot in the arm for Canadian producers, optimistic forecasts suggest that number is more likely a floor than a ceiling. The upside will ultimately be determined by Japan’s embrace of large-scale biomass cofiring as a means to its energy and environmental goals.

Japan’s Uncertain Energy Future
The emergence and growth of biomass and wood pellet demand inside Japan is set against the backdrop of a country at a crossroads with its energy future. In 2011, an earthquake and tsunami significantly damaged some of the country’s nuclear power stations, most notably at Fukushima, resulting in the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. Shortly after the disaster, public opinion surrounding nuclear power plummeted and Japan’s entire nuclear fleet shut down in May of 2012. At least two reactors have been restarted but a sizeable void in power capacity remains.

“After Fukushima, Japan dramatically ratcheted down their nuclear power production and liquid natural gas (LNG) became the new baseload,” Walker says. “They are now running all of their LNG plants and their coal plants at full baseload capacity. They’ve been fortunate because the drop in global oil and fossil fuel prices means this hasn’t really hurt them. LNG, though, is killing them even now with oil prices that are so low.”

Desperate for an affordable base-load power solution to fill in the gap left by rolling out nuclear power, the Japanese announced this summer an aggressive program to build nearly 30 gigawatts (GW) of coal-derived power online in the next dozen years.  This plan, announced early this summer, was met with surprise and for many observers disappointment as they saw it as a total departure from the trend toward low-carbon and renewable power most industrialized countries are pursuing.

In some ways, the expansion of coal paired with an interest to also drive carbon out of the whole system may well be a boon for wood pellet producers. “Everyone from our industry is pulling for biomass cofiring in Japan,” Walker says. “But I’ve had a hard time getting a straight answer as to what really motivates cofiring in Japan. Some of the Japanese I’ve talked to have suggested that cofiring will be mandated there. I’m inferring that what they mean by that is they are going to set emissions targets for new coal facilities that are so stringent they aren’t going to be able to meet them without cofiring.”

This expansion of coal power also flies in the face of a rolling energy policy Japan has developed, typically referred to as the Best Energy Mix. The targets have Japan retreating from a reliance on fossil fuel sources by bringing its nuclear power production back online and significantly expanding the role of renewables. This plan, like similar plans in other countries, has generated resistance inside the country as opponents express concern over the economic impact of higher overall energy costs.

“Nobody in Japan that I’ve ever talked to, from utility guys to the trading houses, thinks that they will ever get past 10 to 12 percent nuclear. And the way the best energy mix goes is that if it isn’t nuclear then it has to be renewable because they want no carbon emissions from that power,” Strauss says. “If nuclear doesn’t make it up to 22 percent then the difference has to be made up with a low-carbon solution. Nuclear is baseload so the only way you are going to make up for that deficit with a low-carbon baseload power is with pellets.”

Each of the potential pathways the Japanese are considering offers opportunity to not only the industrial wood pellet market, but to other biomass commodities as well. If the Japanese double down on coal by building new assets, cofiring with biomass may be deployed to bring those plants in line with the emission targets regulators set for them. If they heed the urgings of proponents of decarbonized energy platforms and abandon their plans for new coal assets, carbon could be driven out of their existing fleet with pellet cofiring and the greater deployment of stand-alone biomass assets.

For Strauss, the latter approach seems the most plausible one, and for producers, the one that comes with the most opportunity for them.  Strauss says, “This adds up to a pretty significant opportunity, easily 10 million tons per year if, in fact, Japan follows through on its Best Energy Mix policy and it could be way more than that.”

Author: Tim Portz
Executive Editor, Pellet Mill Magazine
[email protected]