Development of hybrid poplar plantations hampered by biomass prices
Łódź, POLAND – MAY 08, 2019 – a new publication from Forest Business Analytics has shown that current market pricing for forest biomass produces negative financial returns from hybrid poplar biomass plantation investments in the western U.S. Our results show that without a significant material increase in the biomass price, improvements in plantation yields or strong policy support, the future development of hybrid poplar feedstock production system for the alternative jet fuels market in the western U.S. is in question – explains Dr. Rafał Chudy, the lead author of the study.
Promising growing conditions and favourable renewable energy policies make the western U.S. a potentially suitable region for dedicated woody biomass (DWB) plantations for energy generation. To support the regional development of biomass and biofuels markets, the USDA awarded an AFRI grant to the Advanced HardwoodBiofuels (AHB) Northwest project. As part of the AHB project, GreenWood Resources (“GWR”) – a globally diversified timberland investment management company with over 20 years of specialized experience in high-yield, intensive plantation management – installed and managed hybrid poplar DWB plantations at four demonstration sites: Clarksburg, CA; Hayden, ID; Jefferson, OR; and Pilchuck, WA. GWR developed a discounted cash flow (“DCF”) investment model based on the AHB project results and plantation management experience across this range of growing and market conditions. The model estimates financial returns and tests the sensitivity of returns to changes in key variables. These results inform directions for future research and challenges for commercial production of DWB.
AFRI AHB study sites and fuel distribution network. Fuel depots are linked to both land-based and river-/ocean-based transportation networks. Source: Chudy et al. (2019)
Results indicate that current market pricing for forest biomass in the western U.S. – approximately USD 46/BDMT – produces negative financial returns from DWB plantation investment on all four sites. To produce positive returns at all four sites requires biomass assumptions that are well above the current market (USD 121/BDMT). With this price assumption, plantation investment returns average 8.62% in real, inflation-adjusted terms across all sites, but this biomass price level may make conversion into transportation fuels uneconomic under current fuel prices and policies. Financial returns to DWB investments are most sensitive to changes in price, yield, and land costs. Given current economic conditions and plantation technology, the development of a large-scale DWB plantation base in the western U.S. is unlikely to attract private sector capital without some combination of a material increase in the biomass price, strong policy support, or a dramatic improvement in plantation yields.
Source: Chudy RP, Busby GM, Binkley CS, Stanton BJ. 2019. Biomass and Bioenergy. The economics of dedicated poplar biomass plantations in the western U.S. Biomass and Bioenergy 124:114–124. Free access for 50 days. Main photo: Hybrid poplar plantation. Photo credit: Rafał Chudy