Partnering to Produce a Better Wood Chip

Catamount Forest Products and Vermeer Corp. collaborate to help meet Vermont’s biomass heating fuel demand.
By Patrick C. Miller | March 02, 2019

It’s not always possible for the potential of technology to match the expectations of industry, but when it does, it's often the result of intense collaboration and dedication. 

Five years ago, the Northeast branch of Vermeer Corp. in New York state worked with Catamount Forest Products in central Vermont to assist the company in supplying wood chips for biomass energy that were not only of higher quality, but also far more economical to produce.

Although it took the better part of a year and some trials and tribulations to get the operations in line with the expectations, Rodney Rood, Catamount co-owner and forestry operations manager, couldn’t be happier with the end result. “All of our equipment was specifically designed and engineered for us by Vermeer Corp.,” he says. “They came in to figure out what we were trying to do. We explained it to them, and they engineered equipment that does it.

“Our equipment is so efficient, our whole operation in our yard is run with a skid-steer loader,” Rood continues. “We don’t have big energy costs or other major costs. The skid steer loads trucks equipped with conveyors. Vermeer built shaker screens and a grinder for us. Our job is made a lot easier because of Vermeer.

Catamount operates a log yard in Groton, marketing hardwood and softwood logs and pulp to U.S. and Canadian markets. It also supplies hardwood chips to biomass fuel users. “We do a lot of screened chips, which are made for the boilers that heat schools, municipalities and state buildings,” Rood says. “Right now, we’re doing about 50,000 tons of screened chips a year. All of our biomass—which is whole tree chips that come direct from the woods—goes to heating facilities and plants that make their own power.”

Rood sees a strong future for Catamount in the biomass market because of its current long-term contracts, and because new biomass facilities coming online or in the planning stages are talking to the company about supplying their wood chips. According to Rood, Catamount has experienced increases in the demand for its wood chips every year. He also believes that because of the system Vermeer designed and built for Catamount, they’re in a good position to capitalize on the increasing demand.

Still, Rood emphasizes that there are risks involved in being a wood chip supplier. “We have to lay $1 million on the table for inventory,” he explains. “We don’t get paid for it until it’s processed and delivered. It takes a lot to do that—a lot of planning and a lot of strategy to make things work. You’re keeping all this inventory year-round and having it at the beck and call of whoever orders that day.”
Rood is confident, however, that Catamount can meet the challenge because of the quality and cost of its product. “For us, the key to success with this is getting the fines out of the material,” Rood relates. “The fines are what really make these systems run poorly. It collects inside the heat chambers and creates a mess.”

The uniformity and quality of Catamount’s wood chips enables users to feed them straight into their boilers, bypassing the need for equipment to screen out oversized chips and the fines that cause ash buildup. “In the bigger picture, this streamlines all the way down to the end user,” Rood says. “They’re able to make this a lot more efficient. The cost savings of putting in a boiler and not having to put in a screen system to accompany it is huge. For the state of Vermont, that’s a big deal. There will always be wood chips. You either leave them in the woods, or you find a better use for them. We all want to keep doing this because we enjoy the work. It’s not easy work, but it’s what we know and what we love.”

Joel Teidman, a forestry specialist at Vermeer Northeast, says that initially, Catamount was running about 30 percent fines, 10 percent oversized chips and 60 percent high-grade chips with the Vermeer system. “We ended up knocking that down to as low as about five percent on the fines,” he notes. “Catamount’s yield of high-grade chips is now closer to 85 percent, using the same process we started with, but by doing some different configurations with screens. We also adjusted the process to change how much wood we put in the machine at one time. All those things together allowed us to gain that extra 25 percent.”

When Catamount first discussed its needs with different engineering firms, Rood recalls, Vermeer was the only one that followed through with a plan. “This was kind of my baby,” Teidman offers. “I had an idea from the manufacturing side of the business, but I hadn’t had a lot of experience with it. I grew up in the woods around paper chips. Your customers don’t want to buy sawdust; they want to buy a chip. I knew about the quality issues, and I’ve always been someone who thinks he can up with a better solution. Rodney and I worked very closely with Vermeer’s engineers, who gave their support on the back side. It was very much a team effort.”

Teidman’s idea was to blend two different concepts that, at first glance, didn’t seem compatible. He combined a screener designed for sorting rocks and aggregate and paired it with a wood processor. “We figured if we could screen little stones from big stones, we would be able to do the same thing with wood chips,” he explains. “Our struggle with it was that wood is a lot lighter than rocks. The general functionality of an aggregate screener is shaking. That’s how they break rocks apart. Because wood is a lot lighter, it became more violent and aggressive and harder to control the flow.

“We did some things with matting to create a dry space or a tight space for those chips to come through,” Tiedman continues. “It didn’t allow a space for the chips to get violently tossed in and out of the machine. We were able to contain them, allow the chips to run uniformly and lay flat to get a better blend of the product.”

Rood remembers that there were also problems getting the Caterpillar engines used to power Vermeer’s machinery to communicate effectively with each other. “We struggled in the beginning because we were able to make the chip, but we couldn’t make enough of those high-quality chips out of a load of wood. We were happy with the quality, but not happy with the volume,” Tiedman says.
“We got together, sat down and talked about what we could do differently. We had three different line items that we wanted to try,” he continues. “We did each one of them and documented what our yields were, our rate of production, our fuel consumption, our costs and our time for loads. When we were done, we came up with a solution, and that’s the process Catamount’s running today.”

Tiedman notes that Catamount’s achievements as a biomass feedstock supplier aren’t only benefiting the company and the state’s green energy initiatives, but are also helping stimulate the local economy.  “Catamount doesn’t just produce its own round wood for this process; they’re buying it from other suppliers, too—local wood producers. Catamount could have been like everybody else who cuts logs, sells them to the big mills, and lives and dies with everyone else, but they took it upon themselves to go down another road.”

Rood says that without Vermeer’s assistance, none of it would have been possible. “I contribute our success to Vermeer because of the due diligence they did with the equipment we run every day and the reliability of it. That’s 100 percent our success,” he says. “In my mind, it’s the innovation they put into their equipment to make it work so that we could do our job.”

Vermont might be small, but it has been a national leader in promoting programs and policies that have led its residents to be among the most prolific users of wood heat in the U.S. on a per capita basis.

Driving the Market
In Vermont, there’s a drive to reduce the use of fossil fuels, a desire to make use of the state’s abundant forest resources and the pursuit of a cleaner, greener lifestyle. “One of the reasons Vermont is good at promoting biomass heat is because we use so much oil and it’s been expensive and volatile for much of the last 20 years,” says Paul Frederick, wood utilization and wood energy program leader with Vermont’s Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation.  “But we also have a culture where it’s not foreign for people to think about burning wood.”

Frederick notes a recent survey showed that around 80,000 households in the state used some form of wood heating. This means about 40 percent of Vermont residents heat in full or in part with wood. During the 1980s, high prices for electricity and heating oil pushed the state to implement incentives for schools, colleges and other state institutions to switch to wood heating systems. More than 40 schools and five colleges are now using wood heat systems, and more conversions are planned.

“Having good experiences with the schools, for example, once you get to a point where you have a critical mass and it becomes recognized as something that’s not an unusual application of wood heat, then it becomes an easy sell because people are familiar with it,” Frederick explains.

Emma Hanson, Vermont’s wood energy coordinator, points out that while incentives for schools are no longer in effect, a variety of state programs exist that can provide anywhere from $6,000 for a residential wood heating system up to $50,000 for a business. “How creative we can get depends on where you are in the state and what kind of system you’re installing,” she says.

Author: Patrick C. Miller
Staff Writer, Biomass Magazine
[email protected]