Quality Matters

Biomass Energy Lab’s Chris Wiberg discusses the inception and evolution of wood pellet quality standards, plant certification and industry trends.
By Anna Simet | February 20, 2023

Those with roots in the North American wood pellet industry may be familiar with the story of the first transatlantic shipload of wood pellets setting sail from North America to Europe, which was done under the direction of industry pioneer John Swaan just over 25 years ago. Few were likely in the business at the time, as it was very small and in its infancy—but Chris Wiberg was. “I started in wood pellets in 1998, that same year,” says Wiberg, who is vice president at the Conyers, Georgia-based Biomass Energy Lab. Wiberg joined BEL and Timber Products Inspection in 2011, to assist in building out the lab’s biomass-based services. BEL is a joint venture between Timber Products Inspection and Control Union USA, a global supply chain auditing firm, Wiberg explains. While the company operates as BEL for international services, its domestic title is known as Timber Products Inspection.  “TP is essentially an auditing agency and lab system for wood products—lumber, treated lumber, trusses, wood packaging materials, log homes, plywood, and wood pellets …anything made out of wood that has some kind of a grade behind it. Our services include performing third-party verification at the production site to confirm that the plant is doing what it needs to, as well as for the end product quality—typically, the lab receives samples and runs tests to verify the quality of any one of those various products.” TP is a certification and inspection body, and testing laboratory for the PFI Standards Program.

As for Control Union, if a ship is readying to load cargo, the company ensures it is clean and ready to accept it, and oversees its loading. “During the loading, they’ll collect the samples,” Wiberg explains. “If it’s a wood pellet shipment, then those samples come to our laboratory for testing of the contracted criteria.” 

When the lab was built, it was done so with new equipment aligning with the international pellet standards that were under development, according to Wiberg. “The standards were just coming to fruition during that timeframe, and we were really the only lab performing to that international standard, operating out of the U.S.,” Wiberg says. “That’s about when I started to understand that wood pellets were something different—something special.”

Crafting Standards
In 2005, Wiberg became involved with the Pellet Fuels Institute and realized the lack of standards were causing some industry struggles. “I attended a PFI conference and it was clear that standards were needed,” he says. “I became a member of the PFI standards committee, and we began writing the first version back in that timeframe—2006, 2007. It took a lot of years for it to come together. It wasn’t until about 2010 that the first version came out, and a couple more years until the current program became real. I was chairman of the standards committee and a primary author of a large extent of it, though lots of people worked on the project.”

Soon, Wiberg became the go-to guy for producers wanting to get involved in the standards program. “One by one, I started working with them to get their quality systems set up and their on-site labs built. To this day, I have assisted in launching quality management programs in the neighborhood of 100 plants in the U.S., Canada and overseas. So, you can imagine the time on-site, visiting all of these places.”

While the PFI Standards were being written, Europe had a similar initiative underway, which ultimately turned out to be the ENplus standards. “They were trying to do the same thing at the same time, so we had a lot of back and forth conversations, swapped some language and versions of our standards,” Wiberg says. “We worked together to try to align them, but over time, ENplus changed direction to become broader and more encompassing—like covering the complete supply chain, traders, etcetera—but PFI was written mainly for U.S. producers so that they could comply with the U.S. EPA's New Source Performance Standards for Residential Wood Heaters. So, they deviated over time.”

Wiberg emphasizes the complicated nature of developing standards and all of the individual testing methods such as ash or moisture. “In the early days, we used all ASTM procedures, but they were incomplete for biomass. Coal had a complete set of standards including sampling, sample prep, all test methods and so on. But biomass methods didn't really align. Different methods were picked and matched, like from the RFD [refused-derived fuel] industry and then some coal standards.”

Wiberg notes that when Europe initiated the development of solid solid biofuel standards, it was done through the EU’s Central European Committee for Normalization Technical Committee 335. “They wrote the first version of the current solid biofuel standards and various test parameters that are used today, but Canada and the U.S. didn’t have a seat at the table. Global standards should have everyone participate, so the EU forwarded its work product to the ISO, which is the format that allows all participating countries to have input and a vote.”

 The technical advisory group that oversees the U.S. position on this matter is the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers working group ES238, which Wiberg has served as the chairman of since 2013. “Annually, some other U.S. delegates and I have traveled internationally to wrangle with other countries over how to write these standards. It was difficult at first, as there are many European countries that get one vote each, but the U.S. and Canada each only get one vote, so we were always outvoted. One way to have more influence was to become involved as a project leader, which is what I did. I took on a suite of projects for moisture, volatiles, ash and some other things, and became very involved in the standards writing.

Today, Wiberg is on the advisory committee for ENplus and is one of only a few ENplus auditors in North America, overseeing all ENplus certifications in the U.S.

Making the Grade
Regarding offtake export agreements and producers seeking to determine how the different test methods, standards and contract terms apply to their product and whether it can make the grade, Wiberg can assist. “People call me for interpretations or with their conceptual projects, and through some testing, we can tell them if they’ll be potentially poised for the ENplus market, the PFI market or the international power markets, helping identify where they can go with their materials.”

Technical aspects of the job aside, Wiberg says there is never a dull moment. “It’s really multifaced—we get a lot of calls from people trying everything under the sun, trying to use every possible form of biomass … pits and seeds of all kinds of fruits, coconut shell husks, oat straw, wheat straw, switch grass, bagasse and some things that we try to steer clear of. Some things you’ll recognize, and endless things you haven’t heard of. Ask us, and the answer will likely be ‘Yeah, we’ve tried that, too.’”

Those struggling with product quality can also benefit from engaging TP/BEL to assist. “For example, if a plant is having a hard time keeping [pellet] durability in spec, they might think it’s a compression issue—it’s not durable enough, so they think they need to pack it tighter. However, that’s not necessarily true. It could be a moisture problem, a length issue or any number of things. When you look at the data, it will tell you more than you would think. It’s not about looking at any one parameter, but about the entire sheet of parameters, and how they link together. We help people understand their data, we use the testing to help solve problems.”

Looking Ahead
As for what’s keeping TP/BEL busy, Wiberg says the normal throughput runs at a feverish pace, but even more so as of late. “The ships keep ramping up, the number that are going to various customers overseas—typically to Europe—and every one of them loaded needs a full analysis. That alone keeps us very busy, but one of the things that has blown the roof off the norm is the absence of Russian volume on the market—wood pellet buyers are looking all around the globe for any available wood pellet production that could be diverted to Europe.”

As a result, Wiberg says, there is a huge boom in the number of clients looking to get ENplus certified, including some smaller producers, and though ENPlus certification requirements for Europe were waived for one year, he believes it’s likely to return when that time period ends.  “My phone is ringing off the hook. It is a lot of work to get a plant set up initially, much more so than maintaining the standard once they have achieved it—and everyone is trying to achieve it now.”

Wiberg acknowledges that though ENplus is a very sound, comprehensive program designed to check all the boxes, it isn’t perfect. “A problem is that it’s written in such a fashion to capture how people do pellets all over the world, but more so from a European perspective,” he says. “So one of the challenges with ENplus is that a lot of the requirements are based on the model of how pellets are used in Germany and Austria, and of course all over Europe. There’s the pneumatic truck and conveyance equipment that sends three tons of pellets into somebody’s basement hopper, and then they move to the next house. But this isn’t how a 500,000-ton plant works—these producers fill ships.”

The current model does have some disconnect in terms of rules that don’t necessarily apply around the globe, and are more written to reflect the European need, from Wiberg’s perspective. “For example, there is a temperature requirement—pellets cannot be distributed to an end user unless they are less than 40 degrees Celsius. But in the U.S. South, ambient air temperatures are sometimes above that. So how can the temperature of the product be lower than the ambient air on certain days of the year?”

Wiberg reiterates that writing the standards perfectly would be nearly impossible. “There are always opportunities for improvement,” he says. “It’s very tough to have one scheme that accomplishes the needs of the entire world.”

As for within the U.S., there is presently no demand for ENplus production, as PFI is considered the golden standard for U.S. product.

When asked about the growing barbeque pellet market and whether industry standards should be developed—an idea that some industry stakeholders have debated for many years—Wiberg did not hesitate to answer. “Absolutely,” he says. “Even for the simplest idea of preventing chemically treated materials from being used in BBQ,” he says. “There are potentially contaminated materials out there, or chemically treated, and there really isn’t anything that prevents them from going into the BBQ pellet market. At minimum, there could be some standards for fiber sourcing to ensure the materials being used are clean.

Wiberg adds that some standards could enhance the BBQ pellet market, such as a required percentage of wood species used in product to be able to label them as such. “This would help with issues like, what does a pellet’s composition have be to in order to be labeled as a mesquite pellet—10%, or 100% mesquite?,” he says. “There are those topics of argument, but I’m less concerned about things like that. At a minimum, I think the industry would be up to ensuring that corrosive materials are not damaging stoves, and to assure the health and safety of the general public by ensuring the fiber is clean. They can wrangle over what they would like to include, but I think those would be beneficial.”

Author: Anna Simet
Editor, Pellet Mill Magazine
[email protected]