Underutilized or “Low Use” Wood

Opportunities for renewable energy from Pennsylvania's forests
Underutilized or “Low Use” Wood - News


Prepared by Daniel Ciolkosz, Penn State Extension

When talking about wood as a feedstock for bioenergy, we almost always refer to “low use wood”, which is a funny term, but essentially refers to either undesirable trees or byproducts of higher value timber operations. In Pennsylvania this year, forest owners and wood product manufacturers have found themselves facing a dramatic glut of this “low use” material, which is impacting forestry economics and making it more difficult to carry out forest improvement activities such as thinning, since most of the material removed in those operations would fall into this “low use” category. The two causes most often cited for this glut are:

  • An uptick in timber harvests for high value (i.e. veneer, cabinetry), which has increased the amount of residuals available.
  • Two mild winters in a row, which has reduced the demand for wood pellet feedstock.

If these trends continue, we can expect continued challenges for foresters wishing to improve their forests, as well as from timber companies that depend on income from low use wood. However, this supposed problem can also be a dramatic opportunity for the region, if we identify ways to utilize low use wood in a sustainable and ecologically responsible manner that creates new products and business opportunities. Several possibilities exist for this, especially with respect to energy production:

  • Commercial scale biomass heat- Schools, hospitals, large residences and businesses throughout Pennsylvania already successfully utilize wood heat at a commercial scale, using high efficiency automated boilers that burn either wood chips or pellets.
  • Biochar – has great potential as a replacement for coal or for other uses. See the adjacent article in this newsletter for further details.
  • Cellulosic fuel production – future expansion in America’s biofuel capacity is planned to be from cellulosic feedstocks, and low use wood is a good candidate for that application.
  • Export markets for wood pellets – Currently, almost all wood pellets in the Northeast US are sold to the domestic home heating market. Adding an export option could be a useful way to add diversity to that market, especially in down years when local demand is soft.
  • Other materials – Bioplastics, building materials, spill cleanup media, and other non energy markets could provide a complement to energy uses that allows for a healthy economy that utilizes wood material while enhancing our ability to manage the forest.

On April 30 and May 1st of next year, Penn State Extension will be partnering with West Virginia University to host a symposium to explore opportunities for underutilized wood in the region and develop contacts and plans for new projects in this area. If you are interested in presenting or attending this event, please contact Daniel Ciolkosz at . In the meantime, consider participating in the Pennsylvania State Wood Energy Team, a collaborative group seeking to encourage sustainable use of wood for energy.