Living the Pellet Life in a Coal World

By Tim Portz | April 04, 2013

The team at Pellet Mill Magazine didn’t set out to create an issue with a focus on the relationship between coal and pellets, but we ended up with precisely that. This isn’t surprising, however, as pellets are renewables’ replacement for fossil fuels’ coal and heating oil offering. Any time pellets are purchased, coal and heating oil are likely being displaced, replaced or augmented. As a result, the potential of pellet markets, both local and global, is often calculated by examining the coal consumption in the region or country of interest.

This is most clearly articulated in “Asian Markets for Wood Pellets,” (page 34) a contribution from Allen M. Brackley, research forester and supervisor at the U.S. Forest Service Alaska Wood Utilization and Marketing Center.  In the data-rich contribution, Brackley derives the potential demand in the Asian marketplace for pellets from coal consumption data in Japan, South Korea and China.

In our Q & A with Seth Ginther, executive director of the U.S. Industrial Pellet Association (page 20), Ginther further defines the coal/pellet relationship, drawing attention to an the important market that’s driving Renewables Obligation Certificate banding scheme in the growing U.K. pellet market, noting that it “allows U.K. utilities to keep a number of coal-operated power plants online, while cofiring industrial wood pellets alongside coal.” In the situation that Ginther points to, the augmentation of coal with pellets actually prolongs the lives of a number of coal assets, rather than hastening their closure or full conversion.

Still, incumbents benefit from infrastructure that was built precisely for them, and anyone vying to take real market share from an incumbent has to deliver a product with very similar handling and performance characteristics to compete. Conventionally produced wood pellets can and are gaining market share as a coal replacement, but efforts continue to produce a wood pellet that is an even closer facsimile to coal. In feature “Torrefied Pellet Pursuit,” (page 29) staff writer Chris Hanson examines the progress and unique challenges to perfect and bring to commercial scale torrefied pellet production in the U.S.

Coal’s ubiquity can simultaneously be considered a blessing and a curse for the pellet industry. The assets installed, and the capacity being delivered by this fossil fuel giant, have demonstrated incredible growth potential for pellet producers, but this potential will require continued technical innovation and aggressive policy advocacy.