Biomass Energy from Southern Forests

Key Findings from the Southern Forest Futures Project Technical Report

12.31.biomasschipsThe Southern Forest Futures Project Technical Report is now available online, both entire and by chapter. The report provides an interdisciplinary assessment of potential futures of southern forests and the many benefits they provide. The Southern Forest Futures Project (SFFP) started in 2008 as an effort to study and understand the various forces reshaping the forests across the 13 states of the Southeast. Chartered by the U.S. Forest Service Southern Region and Southern Research Station, along with the Southern Group of State Foresters, the project examines a variety of possible futures and how they might shape forests and their many ecosystems and values.

Chapter 10 of the technical report  analyzes the potential effects of the emergence of a wood bioenergy market on southern forests, forest owners, traditional forest product industries, and forest ecosystems, with emphasis on the following key issues:

  • how markets for wood for energy production might evolve, and how this might impact traditional forest product industries and landowners;
  • the status of technologies for large-scale production of wood bioenergy products;
  • how bioenergy policies could impact forest landowners and forest industry; and
  • effects of woody bioenergy markets on the health of forest ecosystems.

Key findings from the report:

  • Woody biomass harvested for use as bioenergy is projected to range from 170 million to 336 million green tons by 2050, an increase of 54 to 113 percent over current levels.
  • Consumption projections for forest biomass-based energy, which are based on Energy Information Administration projections, have a high level of uncertainty given the interplay between public policies and the supply and investment decisions of forest landowners.
  • It is unlikely that the biomass requirement for energy would be met through harvest residues and urban wood waste alone. As consumption increases, harvested timber (especially pine pulpwood) would quickly become the preferred feedstock.
  • The emergence of a new woody biomass-based energy market would potentially lead to price increases for merchantable timber, resulting in increased returns for forest landowners.
  • While woody biomass harvest is expected to increase with higher prices, forest inventories would not necessarily decline because of increases in plantations of fast growing species, afforestation of agricultural or pasturelands, and intensive management of forest land.
  • Because it would allow more output per acre of forest land and dampen potential price increases, forest productivity is a key variable in market futures.
  • The impacts that increased use of woody biomass for energy would have on the forest products industry could be mitigated by improved productivity through forest management and/or by increased output from currently unmanaged forests.
  • Price volatility associated with increased use of woody biomass for energy is expected to be higher for pulpwood than for sawtimber.
  • The impacts of wood-based energy markets tend to be lower for sawtimber industries, although markets for all products would be affected at the highest levels of projected demand.
  • Different types of wood-based energy conversion technologies occupy different places on the cost feasibility spectrum. Combined heat and power, co-firing for electricity, and pellet technologies are commercially viable and are already established in the South. Biochemical and thermochemical technologies used to produce liquid fuels from woody biomass are not yet commercially viable.
  • Current research does not suggest which woody species and what traits would likely be most successful for energy production. The future of conversion technologies is uncertain.
  • In the absence of government support, research, pilot projects, and incentives for production, woody bioenergy markets are unlikely to grow substantially.
  • Under a high demand scenario for bioenergy, the resulting intensity of woody biomass harvests could have deleterious effects on stand productivity, biodiversity, soil fertility, and water quality.
  • Although research provides some guidelines for the design of management to protect various forest ecosystem services, forest sustainability benchmarks are not well defined for a high bioenergy demand future and existing certification systems may need modifications to address multiple resource values.

 Access the Southern Forest Futures Project Technical Report.

 Access the Summary Report of the Southern Forest Futures Project.


Access the latest publications by SRS scientists.



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