The Prevalence and Operational Feasibility of Utilizing Pre-commercially Thinned Pine as a Woody Biomass Energy Source
The southern pine beetle (SPB) poses a significant threat to pine forests of the southeastern US. Pre-commercial thinning (PCT) is a commonly used silvicultural practice to mitigate and prevent SPB spread in young southern pine stands. Typically, PCT represents an added management cost to landowners and thinned material is not utilized for forest products. Increased demand for woody biomass energy may provide landowners and harvesting contractors an opportunity to utilize PCT residues as a woody biomass energy feedstock, which may wholly or partially offset PCT costs. However, little information is available regarding harvestable biomass quantities in PCT stands and few studies have assessed harvesting productivity and costs in very young pine stands. To develop estimates of biomass abundance in PCT candidate stands, loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) stands aging 5 to 12-years old, and enrolled in the Virginia Department of Forestry Pine Bark Beetle Prevention Program (VDOF PBBPP), were inventoried across the Piedmont and Coastal Plain regions of Virginia. To attain productivity and cost estimates of utilizing small-diameter stems for woody biomass energy, a biomass harvesting case study was then conducted on a 15-year old loblolly pine stand. Results of the inventory and case study indicate that stands at the upper age limit for the PCT program may contain harvestable quantities of biomass (39.63 green tons/acre), although high harvesting costs ($23.46/green ton) relative to regional delivered biomass prices may limit the economic feasibility of utilizing PCT biomass for energy.