How Much Wood Would the Northeast Need?

February 18, 2012

Is there enough wood in the Northeast states to satisfy the current and projected demand from bio-energy facilities now and over the next decade? In one word: yes.

The question was posed by the Wood Supply Research Institute project, a partnership of the Center for Forest Business at the University of Georgia and reported this month as a technical study news release in the Journal, Forest Operations Review. The detailed analysis was the focus of a project entitled “Integrating Large-Scale Biomass into the US Wood Supply System.”

The study measured the supply of “non-traditional” raw materials from forests including logging residue such as un-merchantable branches, limbs and twigs and mill wastes such as sawdust, bark and slabs. While the Northeast Region showed predicted annual wood demand of 19.7 million green tons from bio-energy facilities to exceeding the annual supply of 16.5 million green tons of these non traditional forest materials over the next decade. At the same time, the annual region-wide growth rate of pulpwood at 41 million green tons is projected to easily satisfy the remaining bio-energy demand of 3.1 million tons without impacting the current Northeast pulpwood demand of 16 million tons and leaving an implied net growth of 25 million tons.

Simple right? According to the experts, the answer to the “will there be enough wood?” question is simply: yes.

The question of whether the projected increase in market demand for low quality, fuel-wood material might negatively impact future availability of high value lumber-grade sawlogs is innocent but slightly misguided. A theoretically expanded market for older used cars and junk cars would never clear the region’s auto dealerships of high value brand new cars. Foresters and landowners recognize much better markets for high grade sawtimber. The higher value of sawlog quality growing stock precludes a risk of chipping current and future inventories into mere fuelwood chips.

Similarly with the increase in popularity of high efficiency wood pellet stoves and boilers featuring automatic bulk-fed pellets, some ask if the conversion from older woodstoves and oil burners to pellet burners might negatively impact the region’s forests. Most wood pellets are derived from sawdust or unused wood residue from other forest manufacturing industries including un-merchantable material formerly left behind after forest weeding and thinning operations.

The savings and efficiencies of converting to wood are undeniable. It is estimated that pellet boilers can cost 40% less than heating with fuel oil. One million BTUs of heat from fuel oil at $3.95 per gallon costs $36.56 compared to a cost of $18.88 per million BTUs with premium wood pellets at $250 per ton. To put it another way, one ton of wood pellets contains the energy in nearly 120 gallons of fuel oil. And according to the Northern Forest Center, 78 cents of every dollar of the 6 billion dollars spent on fossil fuels in the Northeast forest states leaves our regional economy.

And while number-crunching wood supply experts suggest there is plenty of wood to go around, their analysis also assumes that all wood inventory removed during timber harvesting is naturally regenerated; or replanted in the regions less fortunate than the Northeast where it isn’t even necessary to replant forests which readily grow back naturally. Don’t believe me? Ditch your lawnmower for a few years and see the young forest sprouting in your own backyard!

Beyond the ample supplies of wood, the very best part of increased interest in using more renewable biomass energy to replace non-renewable fossil fuels from outside the region is that the availability of viable markets for low grade wood and non-traditional waste materials makes it economically more feasible to undertake improvement cutting.

If it were theretically possible to sell rocks, weeds and the weak stems of crops culled from your vegetable garden at a local farmer’s market, wouldn’t you spend more time cultivating and thinning a garden to add more value (and faster) to the carrots you originally envisioned growing?