A Pellet Maker’s Successes, Solutions and Challenges

Overcoming the challenges of an industry in its infancy involves understanding logistics, shipping, raw material supply, the art of manufacturing and entering the right markets.
By Debbie Sniderman | October 31, 2011

Equustock Virginia Inc., a midsized wood pellet manufacturer in southern Virginia, produces five different types of pellet products at a single, unique manufacturing facility. Pellets for fuel, animal bedding and cat litter are produced for its marketing partner Equustock LLC, with customers mainly in the United States as well as export destinations in Italy, Australia, Korea, the U.K. and Taiwan.

A can-do attitude, coupled with the partners’ unique backgrounds, perspective and approach, helps overcome never-ending issues. This pellet maker has not only survived in a time when neighboring mills were closing their doors, but has expanded capacity.

Brenda Robinson, partner at Equustock Virginia Inc., spoke with Pellet Mill Magazine about the company's processes and products, reasons for its success, and challenges it has overcome and is still facing.

Profitable Processes and Markets

Equustock Virginia began operations in 2007 and recently doubled its capacity with the addition of a second milling machine. Now able to produce 80,000 tons of pellets per year, the company operates around the clock, in two 12-hour shifts. Robinson says that additional capacity was added in response to and in preparation for the markets they serve.

Producing Big Heat Fuel Pellets at Equustock involves running raw materials through screens and hammermills, reducing the particles to a size that allows them to flow into a pellet mill, where they are extruded through a die to form the pellets. Robinson describes their proprietary milling processes as an art not a science, noting that how the raw materials are combined and how the equipment is used affects the pellets’ performance and quality.

In addition to fuel pellets, Equustock's diverse and complimentary product line includes Guardian Horse Bedding, Guardian Angel Litter for small animals, Guardian Angel Cat Litter, and Absorb&Clean, an absorbent used for spill cleanup.

These are more than skilled artists who are doing something right. As Robinson discusses the reasons for her success, it becomes apparent that each story of overcoming a challenge has also been or continues to be an area of concern, where learning has occurred.

Location Offers Multiple Benefits

Equustock Virginia's production facility is situated in the Sustainability Park on the James River in Chester, near Richmond in southeast Virginia.

The Sustainability Park houses several business that turn recyclable waste or byproducts into usable new products, including glass and construction recycling.

Robinson attributes part of the pellet mill’s success to being located at this facility. As a tenant, the company fits the facility’s purpose, which is to support the creation  of new products from recycled raw materials instead of filling landfills.

The park’s 400,000 square feet of manufacturing space, loading docks, scales, and other infrastructure, which is needed for large-scale manufacturing at this 140-plus acre plant that formerly housed an old Brown & Williamson tobacco plant, provides Equustock the opportunity for growth and flexible operations.

The park also contains a water treatment system with 2 million gallons of water. Robinson says having water located on-site provides extra protection against the risk of fire, which pellet mill regulators are focused on minimizing.

In addition to being a partner in Equustock, Robinson owns the Sustainability Park.

Her background is in the environment and energy; Robinson came from the boiler world, where coal was used to make electricity from steam and used for domestic heat. She was attracted to the industry because of regulatory issues driving biomass as a coal replacement. There is no doubt that her “evolution” to wood products also has been a major factor to Equustock’s success.

Regional Sourcing andFeedstock Alternatives

“Critical to our success has been learning how to manage our suppliers and transportation,” Robinson says. “It’s important that we learned how to receive and keep moving.”

Equustock pellet feedstock is raw wood materials that would otherwise have been deposited in a landfill. The materials are  delivered by tractor trailer and unloaded directly from a box trailer.
“Since we are using byproducts, we’re dependent on the lumber and sawmill industry and all of their links to the construction industry,” Robinson says. “We’ve got established suppliers and know where to pull from to manage the supply.”

“Depending on how concentrated the mills are, it could be hard to get enough to feed everyone,” she says. “We source regionally; you can’t go 400 miles to bring it in.”

Raw material supply has been a concern, and is one reason Equustock is evaluating alternate feedstock materials for producing pellets. Its current fuel pellets are produced with soft woods, such as pine, and also use some hardwoods and soft/hard wood blends. 

Equustock has investigated using multiple materials for pellets. “Currently we are running initial evaluations and testing hardwoods for pellet making,” Robinson says. “Understanding the flexibility of what can be used is also key to our success.”

Multiple Processes at One Location

In addition to producing different grades of fuel pellets at the Virginia mills, Equustock also manufactures pellets that serve different needs from fuel pellets, including pellets for horse bedding. These pellets are designed to expand into soft, dry bedding when exposed to moisture and are more absorbent and durable than pellets used for fuel.

Horse bedding pellets are made from soft wood pine shavings using different processing steps than fuel pellet production, including kiln drying, treating with high heat, double screening, aspiration, and vacuuming for dust and particle texture control before going through proprietary compression processes that form the expanding pellets.

The bedding is also packaged differently from fuel pellets. To save space, they are ultracompressed in vacuum packages, in contrast to most fuel pellets, which are packaged in bags of various sizes for residential, retail and international customers, or super sacks or bulk delivery for industrial facilities, boilers or utility companies.

Other products milled at the facility also are packaged differently and may not be produced in pellet form. Loose wood absorbents for example, are packaged in plastic containers, and small animal litter in pellet or cobble form is packaged in buckets. Managing equipment and maximizing throughput with the complexities of running multiple processes, products, and packages at a single facility is also critical to their success, Robinson says.

Still to Understand

Robinson says they are still working to understand many aspects of this emerging industry, such as the supply chain, the flexibility of what feedstock can be used, and regulatory issues.
Shipping continues to be an issue in these uncertain economic times, she says. They have learned how to get their materials into containers and on to ships for export but notes that the cost of fuel for land deliveries and its volatility remains a challenge, making logistics costs harder to deal with and to predict. 

Equustock has seen individual truck drivers who offered price advantages over larger shipping companies go out of business in the recent economy, despite a higher demand for their services,
Equustock Virginia recently completed a market survey, and successful testing and sampling rounds that have given Robinson confidence that their current capacity with their second pellet mill machine will soon be filled. She says the company is looking at a third machine, and sees “lots of domestic opportunity and ready, large, growing markets in Europe.”

Author: Debbie Sniderman
Freelance Writer
[email protected]