Recently there have been many discussions of the use of fibre from B.C.’s forests for bioenergy. Biomass is already a mainstream source of renewable energy in B.C., as well as in many other jurisdictions, including the European Union where bioenergy provides almost 60 per cent of all renewable energy.
At the heart of the current debate in B.C. is the question of whether forests are being logged to produce pellets. Earlier this year, the Wood Pellet Association of Canada commissioned us to analyze government and industry databases of wood harvested in BC, confidential commercial data, and independent third party audit reports in order to evaluate what feedstock types are used to produce pellets. We reviewed the data for virtually every truckload of fibre delivered to each pellet mill in the province, as well as the source of all forest harvesting debris used to produce pellets. No one else has gone to this level of detail to substantiate the source of B.C. wood pellets.
Our report findings were clear: 85 per cent of the fibre for pellets comes from the by-products of sawmills and allied industries, and the remaining 15 per cent comes from logging debris and low-quality logs. The logs used by pellet mills are ones of such low quality no other mill will accept them. Unlike other forest products, the use of this fibre for pellet production uses more of each tree harvested, which is also a positive, from a utilization point of view.
We also found that the flow of timber to mills is not driven by regulation but by the economics of the forest industry. Timber harvesters maximize their revenue by selling the timber that they cut to the highest and best users of the timber. It’s simple economics, the value of wood fibre used to make pellets is a small fraction of the value for sawlogs. For example, the B.C. government reported in the second quarter of 2022 the average sawlog is valued at for $150/m3, pulp wood $55/m3 and pellet fibre is $25/m3. Therefore, the notion of harvesting whole stands of timber or displacing higher value forest products for the purpose of producing wood pellets is not logical.
Pellet producers are heavily dependent on both mill and forest harvest debris. However, forest harvest debris as a source of fibre is very limited. Currently, two of the co-authors of our report estimate more than 95 per cent of the debris created each year by forest harvesting, remains in the forest. The economics of reaching the debris and then hauling it hundreds of kilometres to a processing facility remains a challenge for the pellet sector. As a result, the debris is either burned in the forest, releasing greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, or left to rot, potentially providing fuel for future wildfires. (Note: Harvesters are required to leave woody debris to meet provincial biodiversity guidelines.)
Also lost in the current debate around pellets is the critical role they play in the overall viability of the forest sector. Pellet production supports sawmills and allied industries by providing a secondary revenue stream (and help them avoid disposal costs). To put it simply: without pellet plants there would be few outlets for mill residuals. The mill residuals would otherwise be incinerated or landfilled and the forest debris would be burned in the forest, all with negative environmental consequences.
To improve validity, transparency and accountability almost all the pellets produced in B.C. are certified under the internationally recognized Sustainable Biomass Program and the fibre is from sustainably managed forests in B.C. is mostly certified under the Canadian Standards Association, the Forest Stewardship Council or the Sustainable Forestry Initiative.
There is much work to do: from tackling climate change, supporting indigenous and non-indigenous community resiliency through stronger economies, advancing the circular forest bioeconomy, providing affordable energy and heat to remote Canadian communities, and supporting biodiversity objectives in forested landscapes. Wood pellets from sustainably sourced biomass have an important role to play in all of these areas and represent a sustainable and climate-friendly component of the forest sector.
Gary Bull, PhD
Brad Bennett, RPF (B.C.)
Jim Thrower, PhD, RPF (B.C.)
Jeremy Williams, PhD, RPF (ON)