Wood Bioenergy and the Southern United States


Forests are among the South’s most abundant resources. More than 214 million acres of forest land cover the region1 (Figure 1). Approximately 69 percent of the forest land is owned by non-industrial private forest landowners. These forest ecosystems provide a variety of resources including wildlife habitat, watershed protection, recreational areas, and timber production. More than 60 percent of the U.S. wood supply is found in the South, along with more than a third of the wood products jobs in the U.S.1

Figure 1. Forest Cover in the United States source: Wear and Greis, USDA, US Forest Service, Southern Research Station

Needs and Opportunities

The influence of forest resources is most noticeable in the rural South. More than 60 percent of the counties and parishes in the South are considered rural2. Even though the urban population is growing, more than one-quarter of the population still lives in rural areas. These rural communities tend to have economies dominated by the forest industry. Recent downturns in pulpwood markets, resulting in mill closures, job losses, and decreased wood products markets, have negatively impacted many of these rural communities. As a result, these communities want to develop alternatives to traditional wood products-based economies. With an abundant forest resource, it is only natural that individuals and communities are seeking alternative sources of income from the forest.

According to the Energy Information Administration, the thirteen southern states consumed more than 39 quadrillion BTUs of energy in 2013. With the forecasted population increase, the amount of energy consumed will also increase exponentially. Total energy consumption is expected to increase at a rate of 1.1 percent per year until the year 2030. Fuel consumption is forecast to increase by 43 percent. Fuel use for light-duty vehicles, including most passenger vehicles, will increase by 42 percent4. Current energy and fuel sources will be unable to keep pace with the increased demand. Therefore, alternative energy and fuel sources need to be explored and used.

The development of a bioenergy industry using woody biomass could have a significant impact on economies in the South. Jobs and income would be created for rural communities throughout the South. Tax revenues, social cohesion, and economic diversification are other benefits that could accrue to communities with the development of a bioenergy industry.

Image 1. A bioenergy plant in Sweden. source: Semida Silveira


Even with all the opportunities associated with bioenergy, several reasons including costs, demand, competition from other energy sources, competition from other wood products markets, and policy issues remain barriers to the development of a bioenergy industry in the South. Advances in harvesting and processing would make woody biomass more competitive with other energy sources. Current bioenergy markets are not sufficient and must be developed before the industry can flourish. Industry, landowners, and consumers need policy incentives to make bioenergy an attractive alternative energy and fuel source. Current incentives focus on business development with little support for advancements in production and consumption. As such, many of these incentives are available for general renewable energy development, not biomass in particular. Community engagement will be important in the development of a bioenergy industry in rural communities throughout the South. Simply educating people about the benefits derived from using woody biomass will improve the visibility of this resource and lead to an increased interest in its utilization.


Opportunities abound for the utilization of woody biomass in the South. A significant amount of transportation fuel and electricity can be generated by woody biomass. While barriers and challenges are prevalent, the successful development of a bioenergy industry could provide benefits to forest landowners and rural communities throughout the South. The utilization of woody biomass from the southern forest could provide additional landowner income, stimulate rural economies, contribute to the national energy supply, and serve the ever-expanding population of the South.

For more information refer to  Forest Bioenergy (http://www.forestbioenergy.net/).


1 Wear, David N.; Greis, John G. 2002. Southern Forest Re­source Assessment. Gen. Tech. Rep. SRS-53. Asheville, NC: U. S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Southern Research Station: 635 p.

2 U S Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. 2005. www.ers.usda.gov. [Date accessed: August 25, 2005].

3Energy Information Administration. 2005. Annual Energy Review 2004. U. S Department of Energy: Washington, DC. http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/aer/pdf/pages/sce1_14.pdf [Date accessed: June 22, 2006].

4 Energy Information Administration. 2006. Annual Energy Outlook 2006 with Projections to 2030. U. S. Department of Energy: Washington, DC. http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/aeo/ demand.html [Date Accessed: June 22, 2006].

5 Johnson, T. G.; Steppleton, C. D. 2005. Southern pulpwood production, 2003. Research Bulletin SRS-101. Asheville, NC: USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station.

6 Energy Information Administration. 2005. Household Ve­hicles Energy Use: Latest Data and Trends. U. S. Department of Energy: Washington, DC. http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/ rtecs/nhts_survey/2001/tablefiles/page_a03.html [Date Ac­cessed: March 29, 2007].

7 Gan, J. and C.T. Smith. 2006. Availability of logging residues and potential for electricity production and carbon displace­ment in the USA. Biomass and Bioenergy 30(12): 1011-1020.