The Only Game In Town

Froling Energy has made a name for itself through expert installation of hundreds of biomass boiler systems in the Northeast and as the lone supplier of precision dry chips. Now, it is expanding operations and diversifying its technology repertoire.
By Ron Kotrba | October 26, 2018

A history of biomass market development in New England would be incomplete without the narrative of Mark Froling and his New Hampshire-based company Froling Energy. The company has been instrumental in building demand for woody biomass in the Northeast through its expert installations of biomass boiler and district heating systems, and it pioneered manufacturing and supply of precision dry chips (PDCs) in the U.S. Prepare to meet the market maker as the growing company continues to expand its technology capabilities and offerings.

In the early 2000s, Froling worked as a commercial construction contractor for New England Wood Pellet Co. to remodel the Jaffrey, New Hampshire-based pellet manufacturer’s production capacity. “We built their production capacity up to the point where it outweighed demand in our region,” Froling says. “The owner, Steve Walker, recommended ways to increase consumption of pellets, and that’s when I became familiar with using larger commercial boilers. They weren’t available here at the time, so I traveled to Europe.”

Froling launched a company under the ownership of New England Wood Pellet to install biomass boilers in New Hampshire and the greater New England region. Then the great recession and financial crisis of 2007-’08 hit, and New England Wood Pellet sold the spinoff to Greenfield, Massachusetts-based Sandri Energy. “I did not go with it,” Froling says. “I started my own company instead.”

The vision of Froling Energy was to continue what had begun under New England Wood Pellet ownership: to increase the use of pellets in the region. “There has to be more than one of us to increase demand on the pellet side,” Froling says. If pellet producers could simply focus on making pellets and boiler installers could concentrate on building demand, a harmonized transition in the heating markets could effect real change.

Initially, most quality biomass boilers were imported from Europe. The boilers were exclusively designed for wood pellets, and the regulatory hurdles early on created “so many different challenges,” Froling says. “More or less, those have all been overcome.” Today, Froling Energy does business with a number of reliable, proven biomass boilermakers, including Viessmann, Schmid, Fröling, Maine Energy Systems and Windhager. “Now the challenge is ramping up the market,” Froling says. “Most people don’t know what we’re doing.”

Since its inception, Froling Energy has successfully completed more than 180 projects, ranging in scope from residential or small commercial installs to major apartment complexes and universities. “Some of our early projects were in the $15,000 to $25,000 range—some residential installations, a police station, nothing big,” says Jim Van Valkenburgh, vice president of business development and sales with Froling Energy. “We evolved with a good mix of that. We were doing 10 to 20 projects a year, and as that experience seeped into our people, we were able to do more.”

From there, Froling Energy grew—and the scope of its projects did too, from small-scale, low-Btu installs to cascading multiple, high-Btu boilers. “These projects made good headlines and we gained some notoriety,” Van Valkenburgh says. “The next thing we knew, we were doing schools with a million Btu loads with multiple boilers, which is significant.” Some of Froling Energy’s projects are hours away from its Peterborough, New Hampshire-based headquarters. “Reliability is a big factor when you’re two hours away,” Van Valkenburgh says. “We always install a backup boiler with a commercial system because no one wants to have breakdowns.”

The cost of the project goes up considerably from residential to commercial. “It’s tougher, more demanding,” Van Valkenburgh says. Froling Energy’s most recent big job was just completed this fall—a major district heating project at the University of New Hampshire’s Thompson School of Applied Science. The work includes construction of a new central boiler house with an interior 50-ton wood chip silo, and installation of new underground piping to Putnam Hall, Barton/Cole, the Veterinary Diagnostic Lab and the Macfarlane Greenhouses.

The system features a new Viessmann Vitoflex 300-UF KPT-720 biomass boiler, two propane-fired backup boilers, and circulation pumps to deliver the heat to the networked buildings. The biomass boiler has an output rating of 2.5 MMBtu per hour while the liquid propane (LP) boilers each has an output of more than 3 MMBtu per hour. A 1,000-gallon buffer tank is integrated into the biomass boiler system to increase efficiency and biomass heat availability. 

Froling says the new system must heat 180,000 square feet of university space. “The greenhouses are single glaze, so they require the largest load,” he says. More than 1,000 feet of underground piping for the district heating system was installed. “That’s all with welded, underground piping, excavation and backfill, and repaving because some piping is running under roads,” Froling says. “Along the way we had to do a lot of demolition work to get the old infrastructure out of the ground.”

Van Valkenburgh says the cost of the UNH project ran about $2.5 million. “Over the years, we increased our bondability step by step, job by job,” he says.

Another major project recently completed by Froling Energy was the Applegate Housing complex in Bennington, Vermont, which consists of 23 separate buildings containing 103 individual units. Built 40 years ago, each of the 23 buildings had its own boiler that provided heat and hot water to the occupants. Keeping up with the cacophony of failing boilers was consuming and  problematic, so a committee of numerous stakeholders was formed to address much-needed changes. The committee ultimately decided to not only upgrade all 23 buildings’ heating systems, but also to improve the complex’s energy efficiency with new windows, insulation and siding. A single biomass boiler was installed in a newly constructed boiler house that was tied into a network of underground pipes to deliver hot water into each building.

For the Applegate Housing project, Froling Energy was awarded the contract to install a 1.84 MMBtu-per-hour Viessmann Vitoflex 300-RF Model KPT-540 biomass boiler and two LP boilers for peak and backup delivery. Other contractors laid the underground pipes and tied them into the 23 individual buildings. New indirect water heaters were installed in each of the 103 units, all of which are heated by the central boiler system.

Similar to the UNH project, the Applegate complex was outfitted with a new silo to hold 42 tons of PDCs—Froling Energy’s feedstock of choice for its installs.

Despite nearly 200 completed biomass projects in the Northeast, Van Valkenburgh says marketing efforts are still critical to building the market. “Four or five years ago, we made a shift,” he says. “We shifted almost all of our marketing efforts to be in direct competition with fuel oil, which is the highest-value heating fuel. But oil prices sank and that made us look at the cost of fuel again. In 2014, we saw wood pellets were almost the same cost as fuel oil. And in 2015, they were. At that point, the pressure was on us to provide a lower-cost fuel. That’s when we developed precision dry chips.”

Froling Energy didn’t invent dry chips. In Europe, pellets, green wood chips and dry chips each share an equal portion of the market, Van Valkenburgh says. “During our development of the dry chip market here, we practically used the same tactics, the same techniques as we did in helping develop the wood pellet market. It’s almost the same boiler, so there was a natural transition to dry chips.”

The advantage of PDCs over wood pellets is a 35 percent cost-savings on fuel. On the other hand, green chips require a much larger capital outlay whose return on investment is slower. “Green chips require a live floor truck for delivery,” Van Valkenburgh says. “And when you have a live floor truck, there is an extra owner expense for the building, whether that’s $200,000 or $1 million, to put in a live floor storage system in the building. That kind of investment was sensible in an era of $4 a gallon fuel oil.”

Van Valkenburgh says Froling Energy has spent considerable time focusing on converting “that middle ground” of annual energy consumption, which ranges from 30,000 gallons a year of fuel oil up to nearly 100,000 gallons. “At 20,000 gallons a year, what’s a sensible alternative to fuel oil?” he asks. “At that scale, green chips make no sense. Pellets, maybe. At 30,000 gallons, this middle ground makes perfect sense for dry chips. It’s the same or similar boilers as for pellets, but the fuel is 35 percent less costly to purchase. There is a higher investment overall in fuel handling and storage, but in the end, it works out quickly. And when you slide higher to 100,000 gallons, it makes even more sense for dry chips—at that scale, even green chips work. But that middle ground is what was really missing in the U.S., and it is where we decided to make a commitment. We’re the only game in town when it comes to this middle area of fuel. When you look at how this market developed, it’s all been us. We’ve developed the expertise, and we’ve developed the product and an efficient way of implementing boiler systems to burn them. It’s not inexpensive, but it’s economical compared to the alternatives.”

Interestingly, Froling says one of the biggest challenges has been attracting competitors. “We need competitors in order to build up markets,” he says. “You can’t do it all alone. We need some backup. If there is only one supplier of PDCs, the market is not really seen as being very robust.”

Like pellets, Froling Energy’s PDCs are delivered with a blower truck, which provides more flexibility in boiler system design, and the location and type of silo. Moreover, it drastically cuts costs compared to investing in the underground infrastructure to receive green chips from a live floor truck. “Some say us selling both the boilers and the PDC fuel is like a company selling the printer and the ink as well,” Van Valkenburgh says. “That’s true, but then I ask, ‘How did the pellet market evolve?’ It was a gamble making the finances work. The PDC market has developed very similar to the pellet market, but even slower. This year, we’ll be in the 6,000-ton range of dry chips, where New England Wood Pellet puts out 20 times that. That’s a huge difference, but this little niche is very important to the people who are our customers. They see it as their fuel and a wise choice.”

Froling Energy recently upgraded its PDC manufacturing facility from a batch dryer system with a fluid bed floor to a larger, more predictable belt dryer system. “Our old system blew hot air under a six-foot-tall pile of chips 30-feet by 30-feet,” Froling says. “We’d close the door, turn the oven on and wait days for the wood chips to get near the optimal moisture content of 25 percent. This was not entirely predictable. After a few years, we realized we needed a better system.”

The new belt-driven drying system is similar to a giant pizza oven, Froling says. The heat is provided by a 3.2 MMBtu biomass boiler. The belt is six feet wide and 50 feet long. Green chips go in one end as 180-degree dry air is blown through the moving pile, and less than an hour later, they come out the other end with a reduced moisture content of 25 percent. The air leaves the oven saturated with moisture and at half the temperature. “We put the PDCs in storage and they go out to the truck for delivery a few days later,” Froling says. “We keep 30 to 40 truckloads in storage in case something breaks or needs maintenance. We built in additional redundancy because when you provide heating fuel, you need tremendous security. It’s a high-pressure environment and we truck out tremendous amounts of fuel—two truckloads a day, every single winter day. If you miss one delivery, you start to get phone calls.” Froling Energy’s truckloads range in weight from 15 to 24 tons. The company is nearly finished with a newly rebuilt custom rig to add to its fleet.

Planning for Growth
Froling Energy is making preparations to relocate its PDC plant and double its output next year. “It’s much needed,” Froling tells Biomass Magazine. “We’re outpacing our production and redundancy.” The company is integrating power production using steam cogeneration to produce its own heat and power for the new facility. “We will start construction on it next spring,” Froling says. “We’re already planning and designing it. This has to happen soon. All we need is one or two more customers to ask for 1,000 or 2,000 tons a year, and we couldn’t do that with our current layout. We’ve grown faster than our business plan.”

In tandem with building out its PDC manufacturing capabilities, Froling Energy is also gearing up for more PDC boiler installs, including honing its cogeneration expertise. “We’re under contract with a big nursing home project close to us,” he says. “That’ll be over 1,000 tons of PDCs a year starting next winter. We’re on the trajectory to having a full plate next summer. We’re also doing a local library here, which doesn’t seem like a big project, but it’s technologically complex. It’s a really small-scale cogeneration project with heat and cooling—not the usual heat and power. Everything will be heated and chilled with biomass.” Froling says this atypical cogeneration project is hard to do on a small scale. “It will be a big milestone to incorporate this into our repertoire,” he says. “We see it as an absolute necessity to develop into a cogen company, not only being well-versed in providing heat to even the largest institutions, but also to integrate power generation and chilling as well.”

Author: Ron Kotrba
Senior Editor, Biomass Magazine
[email protected]