The Rise and Fall of Wood-Based Biofuels, Part I

16 04 2013

This post includes an excerpt of the research in the February/March/April edition of Wood Bioenergy US (WBUS) and is the first part of a two part series on liquid biofuels.

In May 2011, Forisk and the Schiamberg Group evaluated the viability of 36 wood biofuel projects in the United States.  The study emphasized the unlikely and problematic development of the wood biofuels sector while singling out projects with drop-in fuels and specific technology types as having investment potential for investors.  As of April 2013, 13 of the original 36 projects have been cancelled and 12 remain in the planning or construction stages.  Four have been shut down.  Since the 2011 study, ten new wood biofuel projects have been announced.  New projects emphasize feedstock flexibility beyond wood raw materials and focus on multiple, existing end markets including diesel, sugars and industrial chemicals.  Analysis of potential wood use highlights the minimal relevance of the biofuels projects to timberland investors in the U.S. today and over the next ten years (Figure 1).  

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Newly announced wood biofuel projects have become increasingly less ambitious and less relevant to forest industry firms and timberland investors.  Analysis comparing projects in 2013 to those from 2011 find that current projects use less wood and scale at smaller production levels.  Meanwhile, the traditional forest products industry is reopening closed plants and building new capacity in response to increasing housing demand.   

In the bioenergy sector, wood pellets provide a ready, realizable market.  The enthusiasm for wood biofuels from a few years ago has been replaced with well-earned skepticism and caution. For timberland investors, potential demand and wood-based revenues from biofuels have been discounted.  For traditional forest industry firms, biofuel worries have been replaced by demands to be treated fairly in legislation or mandates that could affect wood raw material costs.  And for biofuel investors and project developers, the needs to produce product for existing markets that can produce cash today have strengthened business models and modified expectations for potential growth in the next five years. 

WBUS Market Update:  As of April 2013, WBUS counts 456 announced and operating wood bioenergy projects in the U.S. with total, potential wood use of 125.0 million tons per year by 2023.  Based on Forisk analysis, 293 projects representing potential wood use of 75.4 million tons per year pass basic viability screening.  To download the free WBUS summary, click here.

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2013 Forisk Timber Price Forecast: Assessing Forest Supplies and Price Elasticities

9 04 2013

This is the sixth in a series related to Forisk’s 2013 forecast of softwood stumpage prices in the United States.

When housing crashed in the United States, forest owners and timberland investors deferred harvesting sawtimber, the logs needed to manufacture lumber.  In 2012, Forisk added a “forest supply module” to its forecasting of pine stumpage prices to estimate potential supply effects on timber prices.  Today, the theory that pine grade accumulated, possibly to excess, on the stump in the U.S. South is holding water. Historical research and quantitative relationships reinforced the notion that (1) stumpage prices would lag increased demand and pricing for softwood lumber and (2) excess forest inventories could further dampen pine sawtimber price recovery.

Quantitative evidence confirms that pine grade stumpage prices lagged increases in softwood lumber prices.  And the slow recovery of pine grade prices in 2012 showed greater dampening than estimated by the Forisk Forecast. South-wide, actual 2012 pine sawtimber prices in the South were 1.6% lower than Forisk’s estimate.  At the state level, pine sawtimber prices were, on average, $0.21 per ton lower than forecasted by Forisk.  While we cannot claim or confirm causality – we cannot prove that oversupplies produced slower growth in pine grade prices –we can establish the relative consistency in the story of demand-versus-supply across states.

States with the most severe pine grade “oversupplies” showed material decreases in their price-to-demand relationships over the past five years.  In other words, stumpage prices became less sensitive to increases in demand in those states for which a quantitative basis exists for significant excess inventories.  This includes states, for example, such as Georgia and Mississippi.  While these estimates do not specify the situation in any given wood basket or for any given timberland property, they do support the evidence that supplies have affected stumpage markets selectively.

In 2013, our research into the effects of forest supplies on stumpage prices focus on distinguishing “supply effects” from “demand effects.”  Why?  The key is to avoid double-counting the impact of excess supplies.  If prices temporarily become less responsive to demand in a given state or market, we can “plausibly” attribute this, in part, to the supply situation.

To learn more about the 2013 Forisk Forecast or Forisk’s market-specific stumpage forecasts tailored to individual wood-using facilities or timberland ownerships, contact Brooks Mendell at bmendell@forisk.com, 770.725.8447. 





2013 Forisk Timber Price Forecast: Framing the Outlook

5 04 2013

This is the fifth in a series related to Forisk’s 2013 forecast of softwood stumpage prices in the United States.

In the 2013 Forisk Forecast published in March, four key themes frame the outlook for the next ten years:

  • Timber price performancehow did timber markets perform in 2012 relative to Forisk’s expectations for 2012?  A detailed self-assessment provides a necessary testing of key assumptions.
  • Capital investment:  where have forest industry firms decided to allocate capital for 2013 and moving forward?  Since timber forecasts are applied locally, capital flows reinforce which states will have the “iron in the ground” to satisfy growing demand.
  • Forest supplies: what have we learned about the relative supplies of pine grade and pulpwood and their actual or perceived impacts on stumpage markets?  In the past two years, we observed an eroding of the price-to-demand response in states that corresponded with excess pine grade inventories.
  • Demographics: how do current demographic trends in the U.S. compare to our historic understanding of how population changes relative to wood demand and housing?  At the end of the day, we must confirm the expectation of fundamental demand for wood products.

In the South, the Forisk Forecast includes state-by-state, year-by-year prices for 11 Southern states for pine sawtimber, chip-n-saw and pulpwood. In the Northwest, the Forisk Forecast includes Douglas-fir and Western Hemlock prices for Oregon and Washington. Select expectations include:

  • Lumber Production: while the U.S. South lost lumber production market share to the Pacific Northwest in 2012 on a relative basis, capital flows continue to indicate that long-term trends for capacity and production will grow faster in the South.
  • Demand from Pulp/Paper, OSB and Bioenergy: by 2023, the pulp/paper sector will account for less than 80% of pulpwood/chips demand, while bioenergy and OSB use 11% and 10% in Forisk’s Base Case.
  • Log Exports: the Pacific Northwest remains the colossus among U.S. regions; the U.S. South managed to nudge its share from 2.5% in 2011 to 2.9% in 2012. (Hold the champagne.)
  • US South, Pine Sawtimber: South-wide prices are forecasted to increase 7% in 2013 and 34% by 2023.  Alabama, Florida and Louisiana lead Southern states across the $30 per ton benchmark in 2014 and 2015 based on state-wide pricing.
  • Pacific Northwest, Douglas-fir: in the Base Case, delivered #2 domestic sawlogs are forecasted to increase 3% in 2013 and 23% in Coastal Oregon and 20% in Washington through 2023.  Oregon average annual prices maintain a $41/MBF spread over Washington.

To learn more about the 2013 Forisk Forecast or Forisk’s market-specific stumpage forecasts tailored to individual wood-using facilities or timberland ownerships, contact Brooks Mendell at bmendell@forisk.com, 770.725.8447.