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EIA releases new monthly report on US wood pellet production

The US Energy Information Administration has published the results of a new survey collecting data from manufacturers of densified biomass fuels, primarily wood pellets.

The survey began collection in January 2016 with data from about 120 planned and operational densified biomass manufacturing facilities in the US.

These facilities have the capacity to produce a total of 11.4 million tonnes of densified biomass annually.

During the first half of 2016, US manufacturers produced approximately 3.3 million tonnes of wood pellets and sold 3.1 million tonnes, mostly to foreign markets, according to EIA’s newly released Densified Biomass Fuel Report.

About 85% of raw materials for biomass pellets come from wood waste streams such as logging residues, sawmill residues, and wood product manufacturing residue.

Roundwood timber – generally logs harvested for industrial use – account for about 15% of raw materials.

Utility-grade wood pellets used by electric utilities account for more than 75% of total wood pellet production.

The remainder is mostly premium-grade pellets used for heating in the residential and commercial sectors.

Utility-grade pellets generally have higher ash content than premium pellets, whose lower ash content and higher heating values are better suited to heating applications where use of pellets with high ash content might have adverse impacts on wood pellet stoves and air quality.

During the first half of 2016, about 82% of pellet sales were utility pellets in the export market, of which more than 85% were sold to the UK’s Drax power plant.

The remaining 18% of pellet sales were sold in the US, with domestic sales driven by winter heating demand and wood’s price competitiveness with fossil fuels.

During winter 2015-16, prices for heating oil, propane, and natural gas were relatively low, reducing wood’s price competitiveness, while state policies also played a role in wood pellet sales.

Some northeastern states have promoted switching from heating oil to biomass to improve local economies and to address growing concerns related to greenhouse gas emissions.

Plant statistics

Most of the surveyed plants, 48, were in the east/northeast states, with south/southeast following with 46 and west at 25 plants.

However, south/southeast dominated in the annual production capacity with a total annual capacity of 10.82 million tonnes of pellets.

East/northeast production capacity, despite having a larger number of plants, was found to be only 2.28 million tonnes, while western states capacity was reported at 1.15 million tonnes.

The survey collected data from 119 facilities that manufacture densified biomass fuel, 14 of which are either planned or under construction and expected to begin operating within one year.

Seventeen of the facilities have capacity of less than 10,000 tonnes per year, and therefore they are not required to complete EIA's monthly survey.

The remaining facilities, either operating or temporarily not operating, reported their production and sales data for January 2016.