Overheard In Orlando

Reviewing the International Biomass Conference and Expo, Pellet Mill Magazine Executive Editor Tim Portz offers his reactions and shares some snippets from some of the conversations he had and overhead at the event.
By Tim Portz | March 31, 2014

Last week’s International Biomass Conference and Expo boasted delegates from 41 different countries. For me, this was the week’s crowning achievement and I’m grateful for every attendee that made an arduous journey to join us. It is truly humbling. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. Our decision to host the 2014 event in Orlando was driven in part by its proximity to North American pellet production and we doubled down on this strategy by hosting our Pellet Supply Chain Summit, a one day intensive look at all of the facets of moving North American fiber to foreign furnaces, the day before the main event kicked off.

Interest in the event was strong and attendees filled the room for the entire day. I was honored to moderate three of the panels at the event, including the final panel of the day. For me, this final panel illuminated the vastness of the opportunities available to producers in a marketplace that has officially gone global. 

While I’ve been increasingly curious about Denmark as a future buyer of North American pellets, Seth Ginther of the U.S. Industrial Pellet Association spent more time talking about the Dutch and their growing appetite for pellets.

Richard Peberdy of Drax gave a great presentation about that organization’s journey away from coal and into biomass. Drax has received plenty of attention in media outlets for their efforts, including this one. That said, anyone really considering what Drax is up to, and the scale of it, would have a hard time arguing against the attention paid to this industry making project. That may sound like an overstatement, but any facility with a with an annual demand for around 7 million tons of pellets willing to sign long term offtake agreements is an industry maker, period.

I had never met Michele Rebiere of Viridis Energy until just moments before our panel began, but 5 minutes into her presentation I was trying to remember who suggested I bring her to the event so that I could properly thank them. Both Michele and Viridis are impressive. Viridis is the only North American pellet producer with production capacity on both the east and west coasts of the continent. For that reason, I’ve added Viridis to my own personal watch list as I think their growth and investments will serve as a great indicator of the health of both the Asian and European pellet markets.

Ben Conte of Bridgewell Resources rounded out the panel and showed slide after slide of photographs of warehouses stacked to the ceiling with pallets built entirely with bagged pellets. The residential pellet market is for real and growing quickly. Conte reminded the audience that in Italy, pellet demand rises while Italian production falls. For North American producers, that’s pellet amore’.

 Just over a month ago in Wels, Austria I heard Arnold Dale of Ekman Group report that the "South Koreans were scouring the world for pellets". It stuck with me and at this year’s IBCE I had two different South Koreans ask me about buying wood pellets. One of them was looking for a half million tons. The conversation, however, made clear for me the uphill climb that market faces. In the short conversations I had, both of the gentlemen I spoke with expressed an interest in spot buys. 500,000 tons is a pretty big spot buy and difficult for the market to fulfill. Later, I spoke with one of the South Korean delegates and he suggested this was driven by the fact that South Korean power producers were wondering if the government’s commitment to renewable inputs would stick hence the reluctance to a sign a long-term offatke agreement.

I left Orlando realizing that for now, demand for wood pellets is coming from all over. Will all of these potential markets become actual markets? Probably not. That said, the portfolio of customers and end uses for North American pellets continues to expand and that can only make producers smile.