By John Kmitta
“One way or another, it appears that the planet is going to get a significant amount of its energy supply from renewables,” said Jerry Morey, president of Bandit Industries, Inc. “It also appears that for the next decade or so, biomass energy — primarily from wood — is going to carry much of that load.”
According to Morey, it is important to review and analyze the growing trends in biomass energy production, where we will get the supply for these markets, and the solutions to produce low-cost fuel for the complete range of bioenergy markets.
Biomass — a renewable energy source — is biological material derived from living, or recently living organisms, such as wood, waste, and alcohol fuels. Biomass for energy typically means plant-based materials.
“To boil it down, it is basically the use of chips as a fuel source,” said Todd Roorda, solutions specialist at Vermeer. “It varies upon the different end users and their specification, because there are several different ways to get the fuel source to the boiler. That is what drives the specification to be different within each end user’s application.”
According to John Foote, VP of sales and marketing at Morbark, biomass chips traditionally came from logging waste.
“Professional logging companies cut for pulpwood and sawmills” he said. “And instead of leaving the waste in the woods, they can utilize it for energy. They are able to use the same chip trucks for biomass fuel as they use for sending the pulpwood chips to a pulp mill.
“The general public needs to understand that the sources of biomass are planned for, and that biomass is available and sustainable — it’s utilizing forestry waste that helps to manage this resource and also to protect the forest from fires, overcrowding and disease,” Foote added.
“As we take a closer look at the expanse of growing markets for wood biomass, it is clear that the economic climate is right for a big push toward renewable energy from wood,” Morey stated. “We could see the potential for hundreds of millions of tons of biomass material being used annually.”
According to Morey, common uses for biomass include direct-fired power plants, pellet production, and ethanol production. In terms of direct firing, wood — primarily in chip form — is used to provide heat, steam and co-generation of electricity. Wood chip fuel has been economically competitive with traditional fossil fuel for more than a decade, Morey added. Pellet products have also become an attractive alternative to fuel oil, propane and natural gas for home heating, because the pellets are less hassle than traditional firewood and the number of pellet stoves installed is growing tremendously. Another burgeoning market for wood biomass is cellulosic ethanol plants, which would utilize biomass to produce ethanol.
The growth of the biomass industry
According to Roorda biomass is a hot topic because it is a growing market. “With the economy the way it is, any growing market is a hot market — probably more than ever before,” said Roorda. “With the fuel prices the way that they have been, and projected to go up again, and with the push for a green environment, it only makes sense to find a more economical and more efficient way to do things.”
Foote added that biomass is growing in importance because of legislation promoting renewable clean energy.
“It reminds me of what happened in the 1990s when states started enacting recycling laws, which included a ban on green waste going into landfills,” said Foote. “Today, the government is promoting clean energy.”
According to Foote, when it comes to clean energy, biomass is the best choice, because of the jobs it creates.
“I’m certainly not against utilizing wind power, solar and hydro,” he said. “But when you look at a biomass plant, it creates a lot more long-term, sustained jobs. If you put up a windmill, you’re basically done. If you build a biomass plant, you then have a local economy that is created between the plant, local business suppliers and the biomass fuel producers. All of that money stays in the local community.”
Morbark sees so much promise in the biomass market that it has an equity share in HTI, a biomass gasification technology company, and now has the manufacturing rights to the material-handling equipment and gasification equipment.
Equipment and the desired end product
According to Morey, most standard whole-tree chippers create an end product that can be used by biomass energy plants. The most common chip size (approximately 3/4-inch in length) is an ideal chip size for the direct combustion biomass plants.
“A typical grinder produces a more fractured shredded material and is less desirable in the direct-fired plants in that the shredded material does not burn as consistently and does not pack as tightly as chips in the transport trailers, thus you have higher transportation costs,” he said. “We, and others, have developed tools to cut and chip with grinders to provide better biomass feedstock. With our Beast line we have also developed a system to make small chips ideal for pellet feedstock and for the blending of wood with coal in coal fired power plants. We are also successfully breaking down grasses for biomass plants, and we will soon install a unit to cut sugarcane to a dimensional size. After the sugar is removed the cane will be pelletized and sent to Europe to blend with coal.”
According to Roorda, Vermeer has options on its larger grinders to put a fuel chip attachment, which essentially turns the grinder into a chipper and allows them to regulate and change to different product sizes based on the end user and their needs.
Morbark has this type of conversion as well, which they call the QuickSwitch, said Foote.
In terms of the actual chipped material, it depends on the end user and their specifications, said Roorda.
“Ultimately most plant material will be acceptable as biomass feedstock,” said Morey. “Some [materials] have a higher BTU value, thus they will be more desirable. The higher the moisture and sand content, the less desirable the material will be. A wide variety of fast-growing trees and shrubs are being planted in anticipation of the biomass energy markets.”
“Some facilities like a smaller product,” said Foote. “Coal plants are starting to co-fire with wood, and they require a sawdust-type material. Most of them cannot utilize chips coming directly from a tree service chipper. But for most other facilities, that is exactly what they are looking for, and most of them have their own screening systems and re-grinders. The ones that don’t will be very picky about their material and may only accept screened chips.”
Market potential for arborists
For those in the tree services industry who are dealing with urban wood waste on a regular basis, Morey sees major potential in the biomass market.
“With all of the announced biomass facilities coming on line, we have been asking our customers what they have been doing with their tree waste,” he said. “In most cases they are giving the material away, paying to dispose of it, or are finding places to dump it. The exception is in the Northeast where there is a more developed biomass energy market. I think that there is a big opportunity. I think that collection yards could be established in urban areas, preferably at a rail siding. A big barrier will likely be transportation costs. We have provided input to the USDA on the BCAP [Biomass Crop Assistance Program] subsidy, asking that urban wood waste be included in BCAP to support collection yards and the cost of transporting this material to the biomass facilities.”
According to Roorda, a lot of the market potential for those in the tree services industry depends on the local market.
“We have found that the transportation costs can really outweigh the potential of the new revenue source,” said Roorda. “If you have to truck it a long way to get it to the end user, it might not be worth the investment. But if there is an end user in the area, we are seeing a lot of customers taking advantage of that.”
“It is difficult to determine market potential,” said Morey. “There are easily 100,000 hand-fed chippers in use in the United States. A chipper with a busy tree service will chip as much as 50 tons a week. Not all are busy and some are used by municipal on a part time basis. But say the average is 10 tons a week or 500 tons a year that amounts to 5 million tons a year. I think that the market is bigger, especially if you throw in land-clearing debris and storm damage. Storm damage will be difficult to predict and is a supply that is obviously not dependable, but should not be ignored. I think as the biomass energy market matures we will fully utilize storm debris. At present, most of it is not utilized. The best way to engage arborists is the build the collection yards, engage those that are already collecting the debris, and pay the arborists for the material — and they will come.”
“Key for the tree services is the volume that they are producing,” said Foote. “Some companies are doing utility line clearing, pipeline clearing or large municipal projects, and biomass plants offer those tree service professionals an opportunity to make their whole project more profitable. Because instead of paying to dump the chips, they now have the opportunity to make some money from them.”
However, according to Foote, tree service companies need to look at the receiving facility before jumping into the market.
“Most of the large biomass plants will only take forestry vans, which are 25- to 40-ton vans that typically carry pulpwood chips,” he said. “You can’t have a small pickup truck or chip truck and expect to dump. That is one of the challenges for tree services.”
But according to Foote, everyone in the tree services industry needs to keep biomass on the radar. More entrepreneurial companies will begin setting up staging grounds, or forming a cooperative with other companies in which they can all dump at a common site then consolidate the materials and blow them into a forestry van so that it can be delivered.
“I really think there are opportunities for tree services and entrepreneurs to capitalize on the biomass market,” said Foote. “But they have to be creative about it. They have to understand the infrastructure of how the biomass market works, and they are going to have to adapt accordingly.”
According to Roorda, there is no roadmap for getting involved in the biomass market. “Keep your eyes and ears open,” he said. “As more companies are using biofuels, and through networking, you can get an idea of who is looking for this type of material. In some cases, the end users are actively looking for product.”
Foote recommends that interested parties visit the USDA Web site and look up the Biomass Crop Assistance Program, which provides a list of qualified facilities on its Web site. There are also smaller facilities that are utilizing chips, but aren’t set up in BCAP. You can also ask your local equipment dealer, as they will be in tune with who is receiving chips, he said.
“I think that urban wood waste from tree services is a huge opportunity, and it is going to play a huge role in the overall evaluation of how much biomass is available in a given region to utilize,” said Foote. “If they are paying to dump it at a recycling yard, that whole business model could be turned around to the point where they are getting money for that product.”