Story by Jennifer McCary,
Senior Associate Editor
During the last 25 years, sawdust, trimmings and shavings have gone from being a waste disposal problem to being a revenue stream that helped some mills keep running even in the face of declining lumber demand. Today there are more markets for woody biomass (formerly waste byproducts) than you can shake a board at. Since 2000, bioenergy, biofuels and fuel pellet industries have grown exponentially, driven by such laudable goals as energy independence, national security and sustainable clean energy. In 28 states those goals are tangibly reinforced by mandated renewable portfolio standards (RPS) requiring utilities to source a specified percentage of its feedstock from renewable sources. In addition, federal energy policies have bankrolled a significant level of research and development as well as commercialization of these emerging products.
According to RISI, there are over 190 announced wood biomass plants in the U.S. and Canada, which have recently started up or are in some stage of development. More than 100 are wood-to-energy power plants; just over 70 are wood pellet mills; and about a dozen are biorefineries. In the Southeast where coal is king, there are 30 power plants on tap plus a couple of announced conversions from existing coal fired power plants to biomass fuel. History indicates roughly half of these projects will actually get built. The recession and lack of credit markets has made the challenge even tougher especially for the high-risk, as-yet unproven biofuels industry.
In the U.S. there is only one demonstration scale cellulosic biorefinery, located in Wyoming. Range Fuels in Georgia will be the first commercial cellulosic ethanol plant to start up, if all goes as planned. Range officials plan to start up a significantly scaled down biorefinery. Initially, they will produce methanol, which is a less expensive product to produce while in startup mode, and follow that with ethanol production. In general, most bioenergy projects were designed for a feedstock mainly composed of mill byproducts, forest residues and other biomass waste streams such as municipal landfills. That would have been a good thing had there been no recession and no shortage of these mill residues that forced them to turn to roundwood to survive the downturn.
It seems an ironic twist that after 15 or so years of multi-million dollar investments to computerize, maximize or optimize every machine center in the sawmill, industry now finds itself in a bit of a dilemma. Razor-thin kerfs and computer driven slewing/skewing saw banks now make it possible to recover nearly every fraction of grade material in a log which means there will continue to be lower volumes of residues generated from each log. The sawmiller’s currency of the future may not be those straight clear boards – as pretty as they may be. Nope. The currency of the future just may turn out to be that golden sawdust pile we’ve worked so hard to reduce.