Renewable wood energy: New opportunity

Published 11:40 pm Tuesday, September 20, 2016


I grew up working on my family’s farm and spent 20 years working at my father’s sawmill. From an early age I was regularly exposed to the wealth of our state’s natural resources. From my time in the Alabama Legislature to my work as the Commissioner of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and more recently in my role as the Commissioner of the Department of Agriculture and Industries, ensuring that future generations are able to enjoy our state’s natural resources, including our state’s forests, is a large part of what motivates me in public service.
As a long-standing advocate for sensible stewardship of our state’s natural resources, I’ve been encouraged by the recent growth in Alabama’s wood energy industry. Wood energy resources, in the form of wood pellets, are created by harvesting wood-processing waste and tree thinnings, grinding them together and then compressing the mixture under high pressure to remove the water content. The pellets produced from this process can then be utilized for renewable electricity generation.
Power generation by wood energy has been widely adopted in Europe, and Alabama can play a vital role in supplying renewable fuel wood energy and make the most out of the uptick in international demand. According to statistics compiled by the Alabama Forestry Commission, our state has more than 900 million dry tons of woody biomass. Responsible management of these resources will ensure their continued health and longevity while also having a significant positive impact on Alabama’s economy.
Forests throughout the Southeast, including here in our state, are thriving and forest landowners stand ready to contribute to European demand for biomass products. According to a recent U.S. Department of Energy report titled the “2016 Billion-Ton Report,” the United States has the potential to produce at least one billion dry tons of biomass resources on an annual basis without adversely affecting the environment.
Most importantly, the harvesting of biomass resources actually promotes the overall health of forests. Wood pellet suppliers follow stringent sustainability standards at both the federal and state level. Many of the small, fast-growing trees that are sourced for wood pellets would otherwise damage older-growth areas. These processes also ensure the safety of the wildlife living in these forests. To this point, North Carolina State University researchers recently published a study that indicates harvesting wood debris from areas does not affect the animals that live there, regardless of how much wood debris was removed.
The woody biomass industry can provide well-paid jobs for Alabamans. According to National Alliance of Forest Owners research, the forestry industry supports over 94,000 jobs in Alabama. As foreign interest and trade increases, the activity of our ports does as well. In fact, Enviva Partners, one of the region’s largest wood pellet producers, holds a long-term lease at the Port of Mobile through which it sends out shipments every four to six weeks. This international trade will add yet another layer of economic benefit to Alabama.
Over the course of my career engaging extensively with the forest industry, I have worked to support practices that enrich our state’s economy while still ensuring the long-term sustainability of our natural resources. The wood energy trade serves as a model example of a policy which fulfills this twofold goal. Without continued growth of our forest products industry to create new markets to utilize these valuable resources, it is very likely that forest owners across our state would be faced with looking at alternative uses for their land. As such, I hope my fellow elected officials in Alabama will join me in supporting policies that encourage the growth of our biomass industry to help ensure that our state’s timber resources remain a treasure for future generations to enjoy and benefit from.

John McMillan is Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Agriculture & Industries. He may be contacted by email at