Alarming Estimates of Forest Loss Linked to Bioenergy Projections

This blog was written by John D. Wilson, former Deputy Director for Regulatory Policy at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | May 19, 2011 | Energy Policy

Tuesday’s release of the draft Southern Forest Futures Project (SFFP) report raised an alarm that the South could lose as much as 23 million acres of forest over the next four decades.

From the press release:

According to the report, urbanization, bioenergy use, weather patterns, land ownership changes and invasive species will significantly alter the South’s forests between the years 2010 and 2060. About 23 million acres of forest land are projected to decrease. People are also expected to influence water resources, wildlife, recreational opportunities, fire and other issues.

Given our past efforts to consider the impacts of bioenergy on forests, particularly the need to ensure sustainable forest management practices tied to biopower, we were understandably concerned about the scary scale of forest loss suggested by this report, with the suggested linkage to bioenergy.

The draft study findings point to urbanization as the chief driver of forest loss, with bioenergy growth one of several secondary concerns. As population grows in the balmy South, continuing our sprawling patterns of development will cause forest loss. According to the study, in areas with high demand for forest products (including woody biomass), landowners tend to keep forests as forests. Perhaps those of us who love forests will take this report as a rallying cry for a new look at sustainable development in the Southeast?

We took a deeper look at the biopower portion of the report (discussing generation of electricity with forest products). The report considers three scenarios. The low scenario indicates gradual bioenergy growth, with demand reaching about 150 million green tons per year by 2050. The medium and high scenarios consider faster rates of growth, reaching 250 – 300 million green tons. Would these scenarios be ecologically sustainable?  What kind of changes will bioenergy cause in our forests?

The summary report’s answer is couched in highly technocratic language, suggesting that the projected forest harvest increase “would lead to important changes in Southern forests.” That doesn’t sound so good, particularly considering the overall findings of the report.

While the report doesn’t suggest a specific sustainability threshold, it does comment that, “Forest product market forecasts (ch. 9) indicate that markets could accommodate about a 40 percent expansion in harvesting by 2060 at current levels of forest productivity.” Considering that even the low scenario reaches a 54 percent expansion in harvesting by 2050, this report is a warning that Southern forests cannot withstand unrestrained bioenergy development.

We’ve estimated that renewable energy could meet as much as 30% of the South’s current electricity demand. However, of that 30% our estimate suggests that a little less than 6% of the region’s total electricity generation might feasibly be sourced from woody biomass fuels (aka, forests). It turns out that our estimate represents around 50 million tons of annual demand for forest materials (chiefly low-value residuals) – less than 1/3 of the “low scenario” value.

The report is a little vague on how much electricity might come from forest-sourced biopower. Under the high scenario, the authors suggest about 20% of electricity could be produced from woody biomass. The amount suggested in the medium and low scenarios is obviously less, but not clearly specified. And although the authors cite the Energy Information Administration as the source for the low scenario, as I have discussed in another context, there can be significant problems with the biopower forecast data at the regional level in EIA projections. In other planning activities that I have participated in, these data required significant adjustment to make sense at the regional level. So it isn’t clear to me that the scenarios that are used for woody biomass are ideal for the purposes of this report.

Another problem is that the base case developed by EIA (which appears to have been modified for the medium and high scenarios) doesn’t assume very aggressive energy efficiency in the south. If we take advantage of energy efficiency, some experts think we could arrest electricity demand growth (while still growing the economy) over the next several decades. Considering how much energy is used in 2050 may be more important than what share of it is generated from woody biomass. I find it hard to believe that historic rates of electricity growth will be sustained in a scenario with 20% of electricity generated with biomass.

We must not rush to support an unlimited market for bioenergy fuels in the electric sector – it could be ecologically devastating. Nevertheless, we believe that there is an opportunity to develop greater levels of bioenergy resources in the south. It would be rash to assume that no amount of electricity could be generated from sustainably harvested forest resources. Our 2009 estimate of around 6% of today’s electricity use seems to be well within the safety zone suggested in this draft report and in other analysis. This represents a sizable reduction in the use of coal and would be both an economic and environmental improvement over today’s practices.

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