Two-thirds of Mississippi is covered by forestland, and the Magnolia State boasts more tree farms than any other state. Given these facts, forest industry and forest products manufacturers, such as Enviva and Drax Biomass wood pellet manufacturers, are extremely important to the state’s agricultural economy. The pellet industry in Mississippi is relatively new, compared to traditional solid wood products such as poles and lumber, panel products like plywood and Oriented Strand Board (OSB), and everyday products including pulp and paper. Even so, Mississippi’s wood pellet manufacturers contribute not only to the economic viability of the forestry industry, but also to the environmental stewardship of forestland, says Tedrick Ratcliff, executive vice president of the Mississippi Forestry Association. Ratcliff says pellet manufacturers provide tree farmers and other forest landowners with a market for lower-quality or inferior trees on their land. “There are in excess of 200,000 landowners in the state of Mississippi, the majority of which are non-industrial private landowners, and there are probably somewhere close to 2,000 certified tree farms within the state. That’s a lot of people who own timberland and depend on returns from their investments.
An opportunity for tree farmers to have a market for the wood they remove from their property for management purposes is of great value,” Ratcliff says. “Oftentimes, the wood that is used in pellet manufacturing is wood that is from lower-quality trees, and in some cases, it is from waste material from other manufacturers. Whether from manufacturers of other products or from forest landowners who are removing a low-value product from the property, [wood pellet manufacturing] is a market opportunity to use material that may or may not have a home otherwise.”
Fueling the Future
Drax Biomass ships the wood pellets it manufactures to electricity generator Drax Power in the United Kingdom, which wants to decrease its dependence on fossil fuels and reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants. The benefits, says Drax Biomass’ Sustainability Manager David James, are the pellets’ efficiency, portability and sustainability. “According to the UK’s Department of Environment and Climate Change, the Drax power station is delivering greater than 80 percent total carbon life-cycle savings by burning wood pellets versus coal. With three generation units in production using wood pellets, Drax Power is on target to remove approximately 12 million tons of carbon from the atmosphere each year. Drax Power is the largest decarbonzation project in Europe,” James says. James also points to the economic advantages of wood pellet manufacturing. “Our pellet plants are located in areas where wood consuming facilities have closed in the last decade, creating renewed demand for forest landowners and wood suppliers. Wood demand from our plants will create a need for production from 10 to 15 logging crews in the wood basket,” he says. “Each logging crew requires $1.5 to $2 million in equipment and employs approximately six to seven people, including trucks and drivers. This money is generally spent and invested in the local community hiring local people.”
Building Better Forests
Ratcliff says the benefits to Mississippi’s forests are equally substantial. “Many times when trees are harvested on a landowner’s property, these trees are thinned to avoid overcrowding,” Ratcliff says. “There is research that shows that an unhealthy forest can invite catastrophic risks like pest infestation or diseases. There are an overwhelming number of benefits from a healthy, well- managed forest including lower wildfire risks, faster growth rates and increased wildlife habitat. Ultimately, a healthier forest is simply better for the landowner and the environment.”
Both Enviva and Drax Biomass are committed to sustainability. Drax implements the Sustainable Forestry Initiative Standard, the Forest Stewardship Council Chain of Custody and Controlled Wood Standards, as well as the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Standards – each of which promotes the responsible procurement of forest products to ensure a forest’s longevity. Both pellet producers are also striving to achieve certification to the newly minted Sustainable Biomass Partnership (SBP). SBP certification assures customers of pellets [power generators] that supplies originate from legal and sustainable sources and that the alternative fuel contributes to a low-carbon economy. Certifications like the SBP recognize and account for forest landowners who participate in forest management level certifications, such as the American Tree Farm System.
“Drax Biomass, as do all forest products businesses, needs a consistent supply of sustainably sourced wood fiber to execute our business plans and remain viable. Sustainability and environmental stewardship are the cornerstones of Drax Biomass, in addition to just doing the right thing for future generations,” James says.