Forest Biomass

Expanded use of forest harvesting residuals for new products

Forests are efficient solar collectors producing woody biomass that can be harnessed to provide electric power and heat, new chemical feedstocks, and alternative fuels for heating and transportation while also providing wood for traditional uses such as home construction and papermaking. Moreover, forestry and agroforestry operations have several advantages as sources of biomass.

  • Trees and other perennial crops (e.g., switchgrass) can be grown on soils not suitable for annual food crops, thus mitigating concerns about effects of biomass production on food supplies. In addition, environmental footprints associated with tilling, fertilizing, and harvesting are generally much lower for perennials than for annuals.
  • Trees represent a “dense” biomass resource that can be stored “on the stump” and harvested in all seasons.
  • There are already in place substantial inventories of forest biomass that can be accessed using established harvest and transport systems.

Government policies and market forces are leading to growth in use of wood and other “cellulosic biomass” as feedstocks for renewable energy and materials. The use of forest biomass as a fuel for electrical power generation is increasing, in regions with increased feedstock availability, in light of renewable electricity standards and climate change-related policy implementation. Use of wood pellets and other forest-derived biomass for energy in industrial and residential applications has been increasing in Western Europe for several years, and has begun to expand in North America as well. Although Bio-refineries that utilize cellulosic biomass to produce ethanol and other liquid fuels are in their infancy, they are expected to demonstrate commercial viability over time. The trend therefore suggests industrial-scale manufacturing of an increasing number of non-traditional products.

The “social license” to expand the production and use of forest harvesting residuals hinges on: (i) demonstration that the resource will be sustainable when new uses are added to time‐honored uses such as production of pulp and paper, building materials and other traditional forest products; (ii) consideration of any ecosystem and biodiversity aspects related to increased removal of residuals from the forest; and (iii) resolution of environmental concerns associated with the combustion and other processing of wood in many different applications.

Priority topics include effects of biomass production and use on wood supplies, biodiversity, water quantity and quality, air quality, and greenhouse gas emissions.