Raising the Bar

The Pellet Fuels Institute is rolling out new pellet standards to not only define and level the playing field for producers in North America, but also to protect consumers.
By Lisa Gibson | April 28, 2011

The difference between 0.5 percent ash content and 1.5 percent ash content in wood pellet fuel means manually cleaning out the ashes three times more often in appliances without automatic ash removal. Given the fact that the majority of the U.S. pellet market is residential or small scale, that factor is important to customers.

And the customer is exactly what the Pellet Fuels Institute has in mind while drafting its new standards for North American pellets. The label featured on the bags of fuel will promise specific properties and quality parameters for optimal use and performance. And perhaps most important, the program will include third-party verification, crucial for producers who want to ensure their competition is honest in quality claims.

That consistent and verified quality allows the competitive free market to function and gives appliance manufacturers a clear picture of what types of fuel will be used in their products. “The long-term value for the industry is pretty obvious,” says John Crouch, PFI’s director of public affairs.

By the Numbers

Although still a draft and subject to change, PFI’s standards are divided into three fuel grades: premium, standard and utility. They specify parameters for a number of properties including ash content, diameter, durability, fines, moisture and chloride content, among others.

In the all-important ash content category, PFI’s premium fuels require 1 percentor less, standard requires 2 percent or less, and utility grade requires 6 percent or less. Utility grade is seldom used in residential appliances, Crouch says. “When you’re up around 6 percent, you really need an automatic ash removal system.”

For moisture content, premium fuels require 8 percent or less, while both standard and utility must be equal to or less than 10 percent. Bulk density is an important factor in industrial applications as it heavily impacts storage capacity. PFI’s standards set premium-grade bulk density at between 40 and 46 pounds per cubic foot; and both standard and utility at between 38 and 46 pounds per cubic foot.
Another important category is percentage of fines from the fuel at the mill gate. PFI specifies less than or equal to 0.5 percent for premium fuel, and less than or equal to 1 percent for both standard and utility grades.

But the bag label touting the fuel grade means almost nothing without a third-party audit of those quality parameters, so PFI has included a three-level verification system beginning with the pellet mill itself. The second verification comes from on-site visits once a month by inspectors who are well-versed in the timber industry, doing other forest product inspections such as lumber grading, Crouch explains. Finally, the inspectors’ assessments will be audited by a certification body, which had not yet been confirmed at press time.

In addition, PFI is hopeful that the U.S. EPA will adopt the standards as a framework for the revision of its New Source Performance Standard for Residential Wood Heaters. It looks promising, Crouch says, as EPA’s project lead for the revision is supportive of the drafted standards, despite some lingering questions. That would mean appliance manufacturers will be required to rely on the standards in the production process and dictate use of a specific grade to maintain warranties.

PFI hopes the new labels will be attached to bags of pellet fuels in North America beginning this fall, Crouch says. A number of pellet producers have pledged to support and comply with the standards, but cost is a big factor. “One of the key questions is how much it’s going to cost per bag of pellets,” he says. “I suspect in any new standards process, the same questions arise.” Cost will depend on the extent of current quality control measures at individual mills, Crouch explains. “The producers vary as to how sophisticated their in-house QA/QC (quality assurance/quality control) procedures are.”

But Crouch is clear about one thing. “The standards process is not designed to replace the internal QA/QC process, but to audit and support it.”

Exporting Advantages

Although the standards will bring numerous benefits to the U.S. pellet industry and its customers, they will also encourage more use of American pellets in Europe. The continent has a 9.5 million ton-per-year pellet market, split almost evenly between heat and power. But currently, export markets to Europe are dominated by multiyear bilateral contracts and are not spot market friendly, according to Crouch. “One of the things you need before you can have a spot market is standards,” he insists. “Otherwise, you really have to do bilateral contracts where you establish a relationship with one mill and you sign a multiyear contract.”  And given the fact that the industry is manufacturing a product that is used more extensively during the winter months and will experience peaks and valleys, the spot market is important, he adds. The PFI standards will guarantee a quality product for European spot markets, along the lines of their own specifications. “We’ve been very careful to make sure that there’s no white space between us and the European major, major areas,” Crouch says.

The European Committee for Standardization (CEN) is currently implementing its EN standards system under the authority of the European Pellet Council, intended to replace country-by-country standards and also featuring third-party verification. CEN Technical Committee 335 began developing the standards around the year 2000, and while it’s anticipated that all 27 European Union countries will use them, only Germany, Spain and Austria have committed to it so far, according to Gordon Murray, executive director of the Wood Pellet Association of Canada. EN standards include three categories: A1, A2, and B. A1 and A2 are intended for residential use and B is for nonresidential, or bulk, all certified through an individual initiative dubbed EN Plus. In implementation, individual participating countries will register a specific organization with the European Pellet Council to administer the EN Plus handbook in that country, according to Chris Wiberg, chief operating officer of Twin Ports Testing and co-chair of the PFI standards committee.

In fact, PFI used the EN Plus handbook as a reference in the development of its standards, Wiberg explains. In comparison, proposed ash content parameters for EN’s A1 is 0.7 percent. A2 specifies 1.5 percent, and B’s standard is 3 percent, all a bit lower than PFI’s standards for similar grades. EN’s moisture control standard, however, is 10 percent across the board, while PFI’s premium specifies 8 percent.

Although most of the numerical parameters are similar, the PFI standards vary from Europe’s because of regulatory agencies and their rules. “There are significant differences between the European EN Plus and the U.S. PFI standards, and mainly because of the EPA,” Wiberg says. The key contrast is the fact that EN standards cover the entire supply chain and the U.S. draft does not. And in addition to the different fuel grade categories between the two standards systems, the testing methodologies used are also dissimilar.

Possible Alterations

While EN covers a wider array of pellet aspects, what it lacks is standards for industrial-grade pellet fuel, crucial in Europe because of its numerous pellet-fueled commercial power plants. Instead, individual power companies each have their own standards, Murray says, adding that Canada does not have its own national standards and instead follows those of the power companies, as the majority of Canadian pellets are exported to them, mainly in the U.K., Belgium and the Netherlands. While the standards of different power companies are not vastly different in most aspects, a unified set of standards would simplify the production process for suppliers. “Really, they should have a common standard,” Murray says.

And it’s on its way. The largest eight power companies in the EU are working together to develop standards for industrial pellet grades one and two. Discussion with the European Committee for Standardization surrounding whether to include those standards in EN is ongoing, but no decisions have been made.

In addition, Sweden proposed through the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in 2007 that the EN standards become global, according to Wiberg, who is also a member of six out of seven working groups dedicated to developing those global ISO standards. “In other words, seven years later down the line, now they’re converting into ISO standards,” Wiberg says of EN specifications. “Under the ISO umbrella, they can open up the discussion to non-European countries.”

Wiberg says specifics of ISO proposed standards are not published and therefore not available to the general public, although they are essentially the CEN methods developed under ISO.

But even if ISO implements a set of common standards for global pellet production, there’s no guarantee they will be adopted in lieu of CEN or PFI’s systems, Murray cautions. “Why would they adopt ISO if they’re happy with their own standards?”

Still, it seems the more unified and encompassing the standards, the better. Both Crouch and Murray compare pellet standards to gasoline standards, saying premium gasoline at one pump will have the same quality parameters as the next. In contrast, pellet producers are not required to adhere to pellet fuel standards, but doing so will enhance the products they sell. “All the standards are voluntary, but it’s a market access issue,” Murray says. “The whole point is to make sure the pellets are a high standard.” The fear is low-quality producers can give all pellet fuels a bad reputation, discouraging their use. “We want to avoid that,” he says.

And those quality-assurance standards are subject to change as the customers’ needs change. “Standards are designed to evolve,” Crouch says, adding that if any end-user factors arise, North American pellet producers will evaluate possible changes. “Right now, the key is to get a good consistent product across all of North America.”

Author: Lisa Gibson
Associate Editor, Pellet Mill Magazine
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