Reports address US pellet production, EU sustainability criteria

By Erin Voegele | July 17, 2012

U.S. producers of wood pellets will likely need to meet or exceed sustainability standards set by the European Union for solid biofuels in order access the European export market. Two reports have recently been published that examine the economic, environmental and policy implications of the expanding wood pellet market. A report produced by the Pinchot Institute for Conservation, titled “Pathways to Sustainability,” evaluates the programs and practices that are available to U.S. pellet producers to meet European buyer’s sustainability expectations and policy requirements, while the Environmental Defense Fund’s report, titled “European Power from U.S. Forests,” addresses how EU policies are shaping the transatlantic trade in wood biomass.

The EDF report notes that wood pellet demand in Europe has been driven primarily by the 2009 Renewable Energy Directive. While the European Commission included minimum sustainability requirements for biofuels and bioliquids in the 2009 RED, sustainability requirements for solid biomass were not addressed until the following year, when a follow-up report was published to outline recommend sustainability criteria for solid biomass production and use.

According to the EDF report, the European Commission is expected to release an additional report later this year that clarifies uncertainties related to sustainability in the EU pellet market.  That report is expected to identify which sustainability programs meet EU approval, rule whether certification or other sustainability schemes constitute a barrier to trade, and address whether EU-wide binding sustainability criteria are necessary for solid biomass. According to the EDF, experts predict that the sustainability requirements outline in the RED and the follow-up report will remain the as baseline criteria for the new standards for solid biomass.

The EDF also points out that in the absence of EU-wide sustainability standards for pellets, member states have developed their own requirements, incentives and policies with little coordination. In addition, industry-led certification programs have also been developed, as are programs designed by the European Committee on Standardization and the International Standardization Organization. The important point for U.S. industry is that no matter what standards the EU settles on, pellet producers will need to meet or exceed those guidelines.

“It is probably that certification of pellets will become the norm within the EU, and U.S. producers need to consider how they might begin to meet those requirements,” concludes the EDF in its report. “Whether or not forest management practices within North America are generally considered to be ‘sustainable,’ it is necessary to ensure that specific sustainability requirements for wood pellets in the EU are met or exceeded by U.S. forestry practices.”

The Pinchot Institute’s report specifies that although international trade in wood biomass for bioenergy is expanding due to European demand, relatively few U.S. pellet producers currently ship to the EU. However, this is expected to change, with the southeastern pellet and wood chip manufactures seeming to be the most likely to expand exports to Europe. In its report, the institute describes four pathways that could represent means to mitigate environmental and other risks in the supply chain, including certified forest management, controlled and mixed sourcing, inspected compliance with stewardship plans and best practices, and uninspected compliance with stewardship plans and best practices. The report also provides a comparison of major European energy sector sustainability schemes, and how they relate to the four pathways in the U.S. forest sector. According to the Pinchot Institute, its goal is to clarify how the pathways can help U.S. pellet producers meet the expectations of different European customers, the environmental community, and European sustainability criteria.

Full copies of the reports are available for download on the EDF website.