Wood Bioenergy: The Rise and Fall of Wood-Based Biofuels, Part II

20 07 2013

This post includes an excerpt of the feature article in the May/June/July edition of Wood Bioenergy US (WBUS) written by Brooks Mendell, Ashley Barfield, and Amanda Lang. It is the second part of a two part series on liquid biofuels.

Investors in wood-based biofuels must keep in mind how ethanol investments have generally lost their luster.  John Eligon and Matthew Wald of The New York Times summarized the struggle of hundreds of corn ethanol plants built throughout the U.S. Corn Belt with government subsidies and mandates (“Days of Promise Fade for Ethanol”, 3/16/13). According to the article, “thousands of barrels of ethanol now sit in storage because there is not enough gasoline in the market to blend it with…”

Regardless of the quality and status of individual technologies and plants in development, analysis of public firms active in the wood biofuels sector confirms how they continue to face extreme economic and market challenges.  First and foremost, ethanol-related production efforts operate in an over-supplied, low-demand market.  The U.S. is flush with excess ethanol production capacity and, thanks to blending walls and other logistic limitations, is holding the bag for a product with few customers.  This is economics 101.  Second, high production costs for wood biofuels, even as firms show progress and improve yields, actually can look worse on a relative basis as the prices for alternative fuels, such as natural gas, decline.  Through no fault of the U.S. biofuels sector, it remains subject to external benchmarks and exogenous forces that erode progress and diminish the attractiveness of wood biofuel investments.  Third, time works against wood biofuel projects in the U.S. when evaluating wood feedstock strategies and alternatives.  With an improving economy, demand for wood raw materials from traditional forest industry users such as building product manufacturers and pulp and paper producers is increasing.  In addition, wood bioenergy projects with existing markets and ready technology, such as wood pellet producers, are increasing production and investment in new capacity.  All of these factors push potential wood biofuels projects to the back of the line for securing woody feedstocks.   As a group, these firms have shrinking relevance to timberland owners and wood raw material competitors.

WBUS Market Update:  As of July 2013, WBUS counts 459 announced and operating wood bioenergy projects in the U.S. with total, potential wood use of 128.6 million tons per year by 2023.  Based on Forisk analysis, 296 projects representing potential wood use of 78.5 million tons per year pass basic viability screening.  To download the free WBUS summary, click here.


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).  


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.

How Financing Signals Viability and Risk for Wood Bioenergy Projects

6 02 2013

This post summarizes research from the January 2013 edition of Wood Bioenergy US (WBUS).

Viable wood bioenergy projects can secure competitive financing.  In U.S. capital markets, primary sources of financing for these projects include private equity, project finance, grants, loans and bond issuances.  Decreased availability of financing represents one of the top three responses – along with legislative uncertainty and low natural gas prices – from managers of idled or failed wood bioenergy projects tracked by Forisk from 2009 through 2012.  Bioenergy plants must compete with other bioenergy projects for financing, as well as with projects of all types in different industries. Of the 164 projects that fail Forisk’s viability screening, at least 41% explicitly lack sufficient access to capital to advance towards construction.

Reasons Announced Wood Bioenergy Projects Fail Viability Screening

20130206 wood bioenergy

Recent announcements regarding financing for projects indicate how investors view different bioenergy technologies and markets.  Financing cannot be ordered at the drive-thru window. The ability to secure financing from a lender indicates some level of confidence and manageable risk in the eyes of investors.  It requires project developers to demonstrate a robust business model or ongoing concern with a proven track record.  For wood bioenergy projects with unproven technologies, developers must turn to government funding sources or to private equity investors with appetites for higher risk.  The wood pellet industry, while facing uncertain growth, has established its viability; a track record of operational success is the best proof of creditworthiness, affirmed by the sector’s access to cheaper, traditional debt financing. Cellulosic ethanol and other biofuel projects remain high risk with a challenging road to commercialization.  These projects rely on government funding, such as programs through the Department of Defense, and costly private equity.

WBUS Market Update:  As of January 2013, WBUS counts 461 announced and operating wood bioenergy projects in the U.S. with total, potential wood use of 132.9 million tons per year by 2023.  Based on Forisk analysis, 296 projects representing potential wood use of 76.2 million tons per year pass basic viability screening.  To download the free WBUS summary, click here.

Wood Bioenergy Sector Active; Projected Net Wood Use Changes <1% since January

2 03 2012

Since January 2012, multiple wood bioenergy projects in the United States have opened, closed or advanced their move towards operational viability.  However, the implications on potential wood use were insignificant.  Total potential wood use from announced and operating projects decreased less than 0.5% while potential wood use from operationally “viable” projects increased approximately 1%.  As of February 27, 2012, Wood Bioenergy US reports that projected wood demand for all announced projects in the U.S. totaled 122.7 million tons, while the 297 projects that passed Forisk’s screening methodology could consume up to 69.5 million tons of wood annually by 2022.

Project specific activities include:

  • Eagle Valley Clean Energy plans to build an 11.5 MW biomass power plant in Gypsum, CO that will use logging residues, pre-commercial thinnings, and fuel treatments as well as urban wood waste from a local landfill. Construction could be complete by the end of 2013.
  • Beaver Wood Energy received an air permit for its proposed wood pellet and 29.5 MW CHP plant in Fair Haven, VT. The group is pursuing an interconnection agreement and waste water permit.
  • Mt. Poso Cogeneration is operating and producing 44 MW of power at full capacity in Bakersfield, CA. Macpherson Energy Company and DTE Energy Services converted the former coal plant to 100 percent biomass. The plant runs on urban wood waste and agricultural residue.
  • ZeaChem will receive $12 million from USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) Regional Coordinated Agricultural Project (CAP). Zeachem is targeting to produce drop-in fuels, including jet, diesel, and gasoline fuels, starting in 2013 at its biorefinery in Boardman, OR.
  • Enviva continues to expand its pipeline of activities.  The firm signed an agreement with E.ON to provide 240,000 metric tons per year of wood pellets beginning in 2013.

For a complete Wood Bioenergy US summary of projects and associated wood demand statistics, click here.

What Can Marching Bands Teach Us About Tracking Wood Demand and Timber Markets?

8 11 2011

When tracking wood demand and timber markets, we look not only to the past and to the future for guidance, but also to the side – peripherally – to gauge performance across markets and sectors.  Heather Clark, our Customer Relations specialist and a former member of the UGA Red Coats Marching band, shared a useful analogy.  In a marching band, peripheral awareness is called “dressing the line,” and it serves to maintain formation and, ultimately, performance.  What can we learn from looking through the corners of our eyes at trends across wood markets over the past few months?

Wood Demand: Pine sawtimber demand declined ~1% across the South, primarily driven by curtailments at plywood mills. While demand declined less than expected, pine sawtimber prices, according to Timber Mart-South, declined 5.1%, more than expected. Dry weather and selling by timberland owners eager for cash flows may have pushed prices to new lows. Pine pulpwood demand increased 1.7% in the South and demand for hardwood pulpwood held steady in Q3 2011; stumpage prices for both products declined.  We continue to monitor softwood lumber and pulp prices, and the proposed lower design values for SYP lumber.

Wood Bioenergy Markets:  Industrial pellets for export to European utilities lead all bioenergy activities. For example, F.E. Wood & Sons plans to build a 300,000 ton/year pellet plant in West Baldwin, ME. German Pellets plans to build a 500,000 metric ton/year pellet plant in Woodville, TX. Westervelt Renewable Energy held a groundbreaking ceremony at its 250,000 metric ton pellet plant site in Aliceville, AL in October.

Forest Finance:  As demand for pulpwood increases in select local markets, forestland owners have called to ask “when should I clearcut for pulpwood versus manage for sawtimber?”  We published research commissioned by NAFO that addresses this issue at a regional level (click here).  In February, I will detail the step-by-step financial analysis required to answer this question for specific timberland ownerships and markets as part of our Applied Forest Finance course on February 9, 2012 in Atlanta.  For more information, click here.

471 Operating and Announced Wood Bioenergy Projects in the United States

2 11 2011

As of October 30, 2011, Wood Bioenergy US includes 471 wood-consuming, announced and operating bioenergy projects in the continental US.

  • In total, these projects represent potential, incremental wood use of 135.9 million green tons/year by 2021.
  • Based on Forisk analysis, projects representing only 73.0 million tons/year pass basic viability screening. Click here to download the free summary.

How does Forisk screen projects?  Amanda Lang, Managing Editor of Wood Bioenergy US, prepared the following “summary in one slide” to outline the process.  (For those interested in the complete history and methodology of the screening process, click here to access our 2010 bioenergy screening white paper.)

Forisk’s ongoing research includes this project-by-project screening to better understand how capital is being allocated in the energy and forest industries as it relates to markets for wood and timber.  Examples of project-specific updates from October include:

  • F.E. Wood & Sons plans to build a 300,000 ton per year pellet plant in West Baldwin, ME. The plan is contingent upon signing contracts with pellet customers and the state of Maine restoring a key rail line.
  • Enviva will supply wood chips to Dominion’s biomass conversions at the Hopewell and Southampton power stations in Virginia. The 50 MW power stations are planned to begin operations in 2013.
  • German Pellets plans to build a 500,000 metric ton per year pellet plant at a former chip mill site in Woodville, TX. The company plans to start operations by early 2012 and will export pellets to Europe.
  • Liberty Green Renewables dropped plans for two 32 MW biomass plants in IN and asked the Department of Environmental Management to revoke air permits.
  • ZeaChem signed an agreement with Pacific Ethanol to provide operating and accounting services to its Boardman, OR plant starting in the fourth quarter of 2011. The 250,000 gallon per year plant is planned to be operational in 2011 and is located adjacent to the Pacific Ethanol Columbia plant.

To purchase the subscription version of Wood Bioenergy US, including the full project list, please click here to visit the Forisk Store.

Woody Biomass as a Forest Product

26 10 2011

What are the wood supply and timber market implications from emerging bioenergy demand?  We just published a white paper on this topic commissioned by the National Alliance of Forest Owners (NAFO).  The research was motivated by concerns about potential impacts of wood bioenergy markets on the established forest products industry, on forest management decisions, and on the environment in the US.

We examined how the current forest industry evolved over time and the impact of new market entrants. Key findings include:

  • From 1999 to 2009, paper and paperboard production declined by 19% as the digital age and falling economy reduced paper consumption. As the paper industry declined, OSB and particleboard plants expanded, which use the same type of raw materials as pulp and paper mills. Increases in wood use by OSB plants in the 2000s partially offset decreased wood use by the pulp and paper sector.
  • Total forest growing stock on timberlands has increased in the United States. Despite timber market expansion for paper and lumber markets in the 1990s and the growth of a new industry (OSB), the forest products industry did not deplete raw material supplies. For example, total forest growth net of removals increased by 101% from 1986–2006 in the South. Softwood growth net of removals on private timberlands in the South increased by 97% from 2006-2009. Recent increases in net growth in the South are due primarily to declining markets for forest products since 2005.
  • There is insufficient evidence to suggest a regional or national shift in pulpwood markets, especially given the modest outlook for the pulp and paper sector for the next 10 years. Given the expected lower levels of wood use by the pulp and paper sector, some portion of the pulpwood supply will likely be available for bioenergy uses, assuming sufficiently robust market prices.

We also analyzed how much woody biomass markets in the South must evolve to affect landowner decisions with respect to harvest rotations. Forecasted pine pulpwood prices in the South in 2016 would have to increase from $11.47 per ton to higher than chip-n-saw prices of $17.09 per ton for landowners to be economically indifferent between a pulpwood-dominated forest and a sawtimber-dominated forest. Across the South, bioenergy demand would have to increase 435% by 2016, from an expected 22 million green tons a year to 120 million green tons per year, for pine pulpwood prices to reach $17.09/ton. Biomass energy wood use will have to be high enough for a sustained period to maintain high pine pulpwood prices to cause a shift in landowner behavior. At the same time, competing higher-valued product prices would have to remain at prices low enough to incent switching from pulpwood to sawtimber rotations. Once established, these prices would have to remain economically feasible for over 23 years to incent multiple pulpwood rotations on the same property. Overall, the analysis suggests that a significant shift from sawtimber to pulpwood rotations in the South is highly improbable. 

To download and read the complete study, click here.