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What is woody biomass? A beginner’s guide to a new source of clean energy

Woody biomass offers significant opportunities in creating small wood products and as a source of clean energy. Learn more about it here.

Uncover the potential of woody biomass in helping to reach clean energy goals around the world

In the United States, approximately 2% of total energy consumption in 2021 was from woody biomass such as wood chips, scraps, and bark. [1] The utilization of woody biomass for electricity generation is only projected to increase in the coming years with the United States Department of Energy predicting it will increase to 218 billion kilowatt hour (kWh) by 2030. [2]

Join us to explore the facts about woody biomass and its potential as a global source of clean energy.

What is woody biomass? 

As organic matter derived from trees, woody biomass is the by-product of natural disasters, forest management and restoration, and hazardous fuel reduction treatments. It encompasses limbs, needles, leaves, and other woody plant parts grown in forests, woodlands, or rangelands. [3,4]

What are the most common sources of woody biomass?

Often classified into construction scrap wood, sawmill residues, and forest residues, the most common sources of woody biomass include: [4]

  • Removal of dead or dying trees
  • Forest management harvesting
  • Timber harvesting and logging residues like branches and undersized trees
  • Wood manufacturing residues like bark and sawdust 
  • Wood debris from discarded shipping materials, construction, and tree removal
  • Dedicated tree plantations for woody biomass [5]

How is woody biomass currently taken care of? 

Both public and private forest owners and managers remove large amounts of woody biomass each year to thin their forests to prevent wildfires, remove diseased trees, and improve the health of their forest. Additionally, woody biomass is also a product of natural disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes plus urban beautification activities such as power line clearing and tree removal. [3]

Unfortunately, most woody biomass is currently burned, left to decay, or taken to landfills instead of being productively utilized for activities such as clean energy. [3]

What are the benefits of utilizing woody biomass?

Instead of being left to decay in landfills, woody biomass could be utilized to make small wood products, heat, fuel, or electrical energy, and other useful products like mulch. [3,5]

The benefits of woody biomass utiliz ation include: 

  • Lower energy required to produce products from it when compared to non-wood materials like steel
  • Non-food, organic material, so it will not compete with growing food crops
  • Reduces wildfire hazards when removed from forests 
  • Renewable resource 
  • Emits low amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) when used to produce energy [5]

What challenges are presented in utilizing woody biomass?

Although there are advantages to utilizing woody biomass, there are also potential challenges to employing it efficiently and effectively due to its nature as a low-quality raw material. [5]

The challenges of utilizing woody biomass include:

  • Limited availability 
  • Expensive to harvest, transport, and store
  • Lower energy density than fossil fuels
  • Technically difficult to utilize in chemical and energy processing 
  • Competition with higher-quality wood for traditional wood products [5]

What potential does woody biomass offer to clean energy?  

In addition to being utilized to create certain wood products, woody biomass is also a renewable energy source. It can be especially beneficial for clean energy initiatives when used efficiently and when sustainable forest management practices are applied. [4,6]

For example, there is already existing technology to directly produce heat energy from wood biomass and produce intermediate biofuels designed to be stored and moved long distances. In addition to heat energy, woody biomass can also produce electrical energy and biofuels like sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). [5]

Why are there contrasting findings about the climate effects of woody biomass as an energy source?

Although wood biomass can be utilized for energy production, there are contrasting findings in the scientific studies on its effects on the climate due to the wide variety of bioenergy systems and the differences in assessment methods. [6]

Despite the variety of findings on the positive effects that utilizing woody biomass as an energy source has on the climate, the main issues in its utilization potential is availability. Although there is enough of a supply of woody biomass resources to cover a large portion of the world’s primary energy consumption by 2050, these resources have many alternate uses and their accessibility is limited, so it often pales in comparison to other forms of clean energy. [4]

How is forest management connected to the utilization of woody biomass? 

Sustainable forest management practices are essential to maintaining healthy and productive forests, which are required to source woody biomass for energy since it’s often a by-product of forestry operations. For example, proper forest management practices can produce thinnings, diseased trees, and branches that result in woody biomass. [6]

In conclusion

“There are immense challenges to overcome when we examine clean energy initiatives around the world like reducing greenhouse gas emissions and creating sustainable ways to meet the demand for renewable materials,” says Antonio Tatagiba, CEO of INFLOR USA.

“When you add in the objectives of protection and conservation, recovery of degraded areas, and income generation, it can create problems that are difficult to solve. Relying on technologies, information systems, and data for decision-making are crucial factors for reducing uncertainties and risks in clean energy initiatives,” concludes Antonio. 

How we can help

As experts in the supply of forest management systems, INFLOR has been operating across the globe for 21 years within a variety of industries and companies. In the United States market alone, we help manage over 2.1 million acres of forest.

In addition to offering a robust set of solutions to manage all stages of forestry production in the U.S. and beyond, we also provide our clients with the expertise of our highly qualified team to help review their forest management processes.

By combining high-tech innovative tools, knowledgeable people, and streamlined processes, we are able to evolve alongside our clients to establish routines that generate virtuous cycles of sustainable growth like better managing your forest waste to benefit from the production of woody biomass.

Ready to learn how we can help your company achieve high-performing results?  Schedule a meeting with our team today.

Sources:

  1. U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) | Biomass—Wood and wood waste
  2. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) | Woody Biomass for Bioenergy and Biofuels in the United States—A Briefing Paper
  3. U.S. Forests and Rangelands | Woody Biomass Utilization and the WBUG
  4. ScienceDirect | Environmental Impacts of Utilizing Woody Biomass for Energy: A Case Study in Japan
  5. Pellet Fuels Institute | Woody Biomass Factsheet 
  6. IEA Bioenergy | Is energy from woody biomass positive for the climate?

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