Money to Burn
If Mark Ryans and Luc Desrochers could get one message across to folks entering the forest biomass recovery business, it’d be to integrate this new task into the rest of the forest value chain.
By Scott Jamieson
“Right now, a lot of operators are trying to recover forest biomass that has essentially been seen as waste by everyone who came before them. So in all the previous harvesting operations, it has been treated accordingly – driven on, piled quickly just to push it out of the way, scattered or contaminated. It all makes recovery now harder and more expensive,” Ryans explains.
With crude oil parked well above $90 a barrel, and conservative predictions for an average price through 2008 of over $77, it’s safe to say forest biomass as commodity is here to stay. So moving forward, the team at FPInnovations – Feric Division East, along with their bioenergy colleagues in Feric West, would like to see a new attitude among everyone, from planners to harvester, delimber and processor operators.
“Forest residues and what was previously seen as “non-merchantable” material need to be treated as another product,” Ryans adds. “It’s a new mindset that will need to be adopted along the entire wood supply chain if we are to maximize both the value of the products recovered, and the efficiencies in the system.”
Both researchers say that approach is already ingrained in some of the veteran biomass operations in eastern Canada, where groups like Acadian Timber (formerly Fraser) have been recovering biomass from roadside slash since the late ’80s. In these operations, delimber operators habitually lay out slash with the efficiency of the next step in mind, so that when the bush chipper or grinder arrives, little time is wasted wrestling with jack-strawn piles, gathering material, or sorting out contaminants.
That’s the ideal. Today’s reality is a little different for most Canadian operations delving into biomass recovery. They often have to make things up as they go along when it comes to everything from equipment to markets. To help them out, Feric has created a national bioenergy task force, headed up by Ryans in the east out of Pointe Claire, QC, and Tony Sauder in the west out of Vancouver, BC.
There are several streams of biomass available in Canada, from standing non-merchantable timber, like BC’s beetle wood or NS’s under-utilized pulp wood, legacy piles, sawmill residues, and more. The lowest hanging fruit with the most national potential right now, however, is slash from roadside logging operations, and it is this source that Feric for the most part is studying. To do so, the researchers have adopted a three-pronged approach, studying today’s biomass, today’s best equipment choices, and future demands.
Today’s Biomass: Feric is helping industry and community groups to identify and quantify practical supplies of local biomass, and to get a handle on what it’ll likely cost to get it to a processing centre in usable form. This operational level work uses a Feric spreadsheet cost estimate program called BiOS, developed by Denis Cormier, a third member of the bioenergy team at Pointe Claire. It puts finer detail on the national biomass estimate studies already available, so that local projects can be evaluated.
For example, there’s a lot of biomass at roadside from Ontario’s popular full-tree harvesting systems, but where is it, and what will it take to get it out? When the community of Opasatika in north central Ontario wanted to evaluate the feasibility of building a biomass sorting and processing facility on the site of a shuttered Tembec sawmill with a group of industry partners, Feric’s Cormier analyzed the practical availability of biomass within the practical haul distance of 200 km, and estimated the cost of processing and transporting this slash. In this case, while some three million green metric tones (GMT) were produced annually inside this zone, just over half was readily accessible. That’s more than enough to proceed (assuming tenure can be solved), but the project can now be scaled accordingly.
Feric western region recently completed a “high level” inventory for Alberta that estimated the amount of biomass from roadside harvesting operations, non-merchantable stands, FireSmart treatments, and other sources. As with the Ontario experience, it showed that the roadside residues are the low-hanging fruit of the biomass inventory. Feric’s east and west regions are currently collaborating to adapt BiOS to Alberta conditions, and to refine the inventory estimates for some localized areas. Researchers in Feric’s western region are conducting a biomass inventory on the BC coast.
The mountain pine beetle infestation in western Canada presents unique challenges and opportunities for biomass. As the forest industry attempts to maximize the recovery from this deteriorating resource, it is recognized that large volumes of standing dead trees cannot be harvested economically as conventional forest products. A 2006 project examined the issues with harvesting the standing dead trees and found that costs were increased significantly compared to harvesting roadside residues. Western researcher Jack MacDonald notes that issues such as tenure, silvicultural obligations, and road construction must be dealt with before harvesting standing dead trees for biomass can become a reality.
Today’s Equipment: Roadside slash calls for a specific set of equipment and techniques to process and haul it efficiently, and who knows that better than experienced operators who have been dealing with roadside slash for years or even decades? In an effort to help newcomers develop or fine tune their biomass recovery, processing, and hauling systems, Feric researchers have spent a lot of time visiting established operations, mostly in the Maritimes, Quebec, and New England, areas where roadside slash has long been used as an energy source for large energy plants or pulp mill boilers.
Feric has seen a lot of systems in action and spoken to a lot of veteran operators, but what seems to work best given today’s randomly prepared roadside slash are large, high-horsepower, track-powered horizontal grinders. They can be positioned at roadside perpendicular to the chip vans with a little work, and are better able to handle contaminants than the chippers typically used in European operations, so are suited to reclaiming poorly managed or carelessly handled logging slash. They are also more versatile than other options, as they can work in a wider range of conditions, in both hard and softwood, and can be used for other work when not in the bush, such as mill yard processing. As requirements and biomass markets evolve, Feric will continue to look at equipment options.
Tomorrow’s Products: Various equipment options will likely be needed too, as industry evolves to match evolving biomass market needs. For starters, smaller community heating plants, liquid fuel converters, or biorefineries will have more sophisticated needs, and being able to target some or all of these players will enhance the value, and margins, of the biomass supplier.
“Right now the larger energy plants are quite forgiving in what they can accept,” Ryans notes, “but this will change as we see smaller community heating plants, that will need smaller, more consistent chip sizes, or refineries that need cleaner whitewood or lower moisture content (MC).”
To help biomass suppliers get ready, Feric is looking at a host of ways to enhance biomass value, from controlling contaminants to reducing MC and separating white wood.
Yet for those jumping into the fray today, the challenges are more immediate. To help, we asked Feric’s biomass researchers to give us their “Top 5” list of things new contractors should do to start off on the right foot.
Tip 1 – Plan ahead: Integration of biomass recovery with the log harvesting phase is the ideal, but if that’s not possible, there are still ways to reduce costs and headaches. Desrochers stress the importance of preparing the slash and the trucking ahead of time.
“You want to be ready for when the big gear rolls in,” he says of the horizontal grinder and excavator combo that most roadside slash recovery operations now use. “You’re looking at close to or over one million dollars when it’s all said and done, so you want it to be working as soon, and as much, as possible, rather than parked, waiting while you collect the slash.”
Still, even if you have the logistics and planning down pat, the eastern researchers caution against expecting too high a utilization rate.
“Given the nature of the operation, the moving, set up time, trucking, you can’t expect to see utilization rates like you would on a buncher,” Ryans warns. “On a cold piling system you may expect to hit the upper 60 to 70% range, and less if you run hot.” Budget accordingly.
Tip 2 – Trucking matters: It’s a new business, but in the end, don’t forget that like most forest operations, the hauling will still be the most expensive part of the operation. It may also be a factor in the efficiency of the processing or communition phase. Consider it carefully.
Whether you run a hot (the grinder loading directly to a van) or cold (piling at roadside to load vans later) system will depend on the available trucking power. While Feric says the hot system will likely be the most cost-effective all things being equal, all things are rarely equal in the Canadian forest industry. If you’re setting up a biomass operation in BC or Alberta, the odds of having the available trucking to run a smooth hot chipping or grinding system are long. And it is key, as a large grinder can fill a van in 30 minutes. Cold piling may be easier, but expect extra handling costs, and up to 10% in lost fibre.
In terms of trailers, hauling can involve regular chip vans when hauling to large facilities with tippers, or live floor trailers, although Ryans notes that many of the latter currently
running were not spec’d for off-highway work.
Tip 3 – Haul energy, not water: Because trucking will make or break many biomass projects, it’s best to start out hauling the driest material possible. This starts by piling your slash or energy products accordingly, and allowing them to dry as much as possible between harvesting and slash processing. Piling them in the ditch or pushing them under snow is not a great idea, for example. Of course, if you’re paid by the tonne, this may all be counter-productive, which goes back to adopting a new mindset for these new energy products.
“When you spend time with people in this business in Scandinavia, you see them referring to slash or stumps in terms of megawatt hours, not tonnes or cubic metres,” Ryans explains. “There are so many megawatt hours in that pile, and so many megawatt hours per load, etc… That’s where the value is, so we need to start thinking in those terms.”
Tip 4 – Keep it clean: Start working today to reduce contaminants throughout the system. It will help today’s operation run smoother, and will be an essential part of the business in the future.
Tip 5 – Grapple with the details: And one of those details is, in fact, your grapple. Feric recommends a continuous rotation grapple fitted with open tines, which will allow for efficient feeding of slash while letting rocks fall to the ground. There are several models, although a popular one is a Rotobec grapple custom made for debris handling. It’s a small part of the puzzle perhaps, but the grinder only works as fast as you feed it.
“Yet, it’s amazing how many contractors will resist investing the $20,000 in a specialized grapple even though it will let them get the most from an $800,000 to $1 million system,” Desrochers adds. “But these are the grapples you see the more experienced operations use.”
Like all forestry operations, it may not be rocket science, but success or failure is all in daily attention to details.
BIOENERGY IN 2008
Learning from Swedes, Canucks both east & west
If biomass recovery and processing is a hot topic, the hottest place to learn more about it in 2008 is World Bioenergy 2008, an event set for Jönköping, Sweden, May 27-29, with industry tours both before and after. In fact the whole approach to this event is unique, blending a three-day conference, trade show, and tours each and every day, all reflecting the theme of Taking you from know how to show how. Organized by the folks at Elmia Wood and SVEBIO (the Swedish Bioenergy Association), it includes:
• Pre-conference tours (May 26): Taking you from the airports of either Stockholm or Copenhagen, this one-day excursion will stop at plants for heat and power generation (CHP) using different biofuels, energy crop plantations, small town district heating, ethanol and biodiesel production, biogas production, and sawmill with integrated pellet production.
• The conference itself (May 27-29), which mixes
presentations in the morning with field excursions every afternoon, and social events each evening, no doubt featuring some of Sweden’s original liquid bio-fuel.
• The trade show (May 27-29), which will host over 100 specialized suppliers involved in biomass recovery and processing, as well as bioenergy and biorefinery
• Post-conference tours (May 30): These will take different routes back to the Stockholm and Copenhagen airports, but will visit a similar array of bioenergy businesses.
For more info, visit www1.elmia.se/worldbioenergy.
If your travel budget can’t get you to Sweden, or if you’d also like to get a more Canadian context, there are major events happening on the Canadian front as well in both western and eastern Canada.
Bioenergy 2008 Conference & Exhibition: This event takes place June 3-5, 2008 in Prince George, BC, the bioenergy fibre basket of Canada. Immediately followed by Forest Resource EXPO 2008, the conference includes a full-day wood pellet forum, policy discussions, information on both liquid and solid biomass sectors, and presentations on technology and transport among other topics. Visitors have two exhibitions they can visit – the on-site displays at Bioenergy, as well as a special pavilion at Forest Resources EXPO. More info at www.bioenergyconference.org.
Forest Industry & Forest Biomass for Bioenergy & Bioproducts: Feric held an introductory workshop in Alberta in March 2007 (see a report at www.canadianforestindustries.ca) and is planning a follow-up for 2008. Visit www.feric.ca for updates.
DEMO 2008 Conference: This Pre-DEMO event will be held in Halifax, NS, with cooperation between the Canadian Woodlands Forum and CanBio. Slated for September 16-17 at the downtown Westin Nova Scotian Hotel, Bio-energy: Developing Trends and New Opportunities for a Changing Forest Industry, will look at the state-of-the-nation of Canada’s emerging biomass business, from biomass recovery and processing through to bioenergy production and refining, as well as the effect on the forest ecosystem. More information as it becomes available at www.demointernational.com.