Our Views: There is a new use for our trees - providing wood pellets as a potential valuable fuel source _lowres

Advocate Staff Photo by Heather McClelland Shot 05/05/09 Trax#00017034a Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain

While he’s typically called the state’s agriculture commissioner, veterinarian Michael Strain is actually head of the state Department of Agriculture and Forestry. That last part is why he has been so enthusiastic about the impact of a growing industry for Louisiana’s pine forests, providing wood pellets as a renewable energy source.

In a positive report on the industry to the Press Club of Baton Rouge, Strain pointed to the major construction of a transit center for the pellets at the Port of Greater Baton Rouge in Port Allen.

The two large white domes visible to travelers from Interstate 10 are part of a Mississippi River shipping business for major utilities in Europe. Wood pellet production rose from 2.8 million tons in 2008 to 19.9 million tons in 2013, according to the U.S. Forest Service. It’s expected that number could get as high as 25.9 million tons by 2020.

As with any fuel, wood has its critics, including some environmental groups skeptical of claims that burning wood pellets reduces the release of carbon into the atmosphere. There’s a related concern that the demand for wood pellets will lead to cutting down of the slow-growing bottomland hardwoods instead of quicker-growing pines.

For the moment in Europe, the wood has the imprimatur of science and government: Investment in Louisiana and the South, where there was an existing infrastructure of forestry products and the river system to move them to market, is going ahead fast.

One large utility in Great Britain, Drax, has two of its six generators burning wood pellets, and the conversion of a third generator is expected to be finished in 2016. The company is proud to boast that it would then produce about 15 percent to 16 percent of the renewable energy in the country.

The EU strongly backs efforts to reduce carbon emissions, the so-called “greenhouse gases” that scientists say are the main culprit in climate change. “Drax in the U.K. is the largest carbon emitter in Europe,” said Pete Madden, Drax U.S. CEO. “The hunt is on to find how we reduce our carbon footprint.”

These new developments in “biomass” energy have obvious benefits in timber regions, hard-hit by the decline in the housing and paper-making industries because of the 2008-09 recession. Drax sought out areas, like Bastrop in north Louisiana, where a paper mill had closed and the resulting layoffs hurt the local economy — not just plant workers but owners of timberlands.

The fear of harvesting of hardwood lands is not realistic, according to the companies involved and the more objective outlook of LSU scientists. Hardwoods are much more valuable as lumber and other products to be harvested than the lower-priced wood pellets, said Shaun Tanger, assistant professor and extension forest economist with the LSU Agricultural Center. Softwood is preferred because it burns with less ash and generates more BTUs than hardwoods.

We believe Strain and other enthusiasts for this industry are right to boost it, given that EU nations require certifications demonstrating use of renewable resources. Sustainable forestry standards have long been pushed by Louisiana and by the timber industry to ensure long-term benefits and to avoid the clear-cutting that savaged Louisiana’s forests more than a century ago. The vast pine plantations of northern and central Louisiana can supply, sustainably, this new industry and continue to support more traditional uses, as well.

Much attention continues to be given to the role that crops such as corn and sugar cane can play as biomass resources for fuels, but the pine tree is one that is clearly getting off to the best start.