Waiting for Standards

Pellet standards designed to certify quality are almost here in North America. Will the new system be worth the wait?
By Luke Geiver | October 24, 2012

The production strategies and bottom lines of all pellet mills in the U.S. could someday hinge on eight numbers. The numbers represent fuel quality parameters ranging from durability to ash content and are the backbone of a standards program developed by the Pellet Fuels Institute unveiled one year ago to verify a pellet’s overall content and performance to end-users. In response to the U.S. EPA’s announcement that residential pellet stoves would be required to meet emissions requirements through the EPA’s New Source Performance Standard (NSPS), PFI enlisted help from its own members to craft a standards program that could be used by the EPA for the NSPS, and pellet production facilities to verify pellet grades once and for all.

A lot has happened in the pellets industry since the standards first came out, but the issue of pellets standards requirements and the complications related to implementation of the intricate program may be the No. 1 talking point in the industry. Apart from those eight fuel property parameters, there are several other reasons why.

From The Authors

Chris Wiberg, manager for Timber Products Inspection and Biomass Energy Lab in Georgia, is qualified to speak about the bones of the standards program. He wrote most of it. Along with the help of several others, he adapts the controlling copy.  “As additional information comes in and we make revisions, I’ll add that,” he says. The PFI Standards Committee is comprised of laboratory technicians, boiler manufacturers, pellet producers and more. In 2008, the standards were written and then amended in 2011, in response to the EPA’s request to include the element of third-party auditing to a verification system. “I’m up to my ears and over with biofuel standards,” he says.

The standards are based on the following fuel properties: bulk density per pound/cubic foot, diameter in inches (or diameter in millimeters), durability, percentage of fines at the mill gate, percentage of inorganic ash, length (percentage greater than 1.5 inches), percentage of moisture and chloride content in parts per million. Originally, the grades for fuel pellets were super premium, premium, standard and utility, but currently, the grades possible are premium, standard and utility.

“Everything you see in the PFI standard,” Wiberg says, “whether it’s a length issue, a fines issue, a diameter issue or bulk density, all relates back to stove performance and the ability of the auger to convey it, and the ability of the combustion appliance to efficiently burn it.”

Most of the fuel properties are given room for variance, and as Wiberg says, for good reason. As an example, he points to bulk density. For premium grade pellets, the range is 40 to 46 lb/cubic foot, so that the appliance manufacturers can design their appliances for a bulk density of 43 lb/cubic foot with a plus or minus error of three.

Wiberg and the members of the standards committee revamped some ASTM test methods and created their own to form the testing procedures used for the program. But since the draft was released in 2011, not much has changed in the fuel requirement numbers. Other parts of the program have progressed.

To meet the EPA’s request for third-party verification of offsite and onsite pellet testing labs, the standards program has enlisted the American Lumber Standard Committee to serve as the auditing agency for the program. “Because their (ALSC) network was already deep, they put out information that a new program was available,” Wiberg says. To date, 12 companies have been accredited by ALSC to audit pellet testing facilities across North America, and four labs have also been accredited to perform testing. “These auditors and labs are now poised and ready to do their jobs,” he says. “What we need now is for pellet producers to actually sign on and implement at their end.”

The Complexities of Compliance

Although roughly 50 mills have signed a PFI pledge to participate in the third-party certification program, at the time of this article, no company has officially signed up for the certification process, according to Everett Follette, director of sales and marketing for Spearfish Pellet Co. LLC.

To participate in the program, a pellet producer doesn’t have to be or become a PFI member, but that producer does have to do several other things. For all bags to receive the pellet quality label that comes after certification is complete, a mill will either have to set up an internal lab to test for the eight fuel parameters or send out samples to one of the accredited companies or labs that have been verified by ALSC. For now, roughly once per month, an auditing agent will visit each mill’s onsite lab to validate the testing procedures.

This is where the main discussion and debate on the standards program resides. Although Wiberg says there has been some back and forth over allowable ash content percentage in premium grade fuel (along with a few other sticking points), it’s the cost of new testing equipment, sample shipments and training that has many producers uneasy over the implementation of the program.

Follette’s operation in Spearfish offers a clear example why. Located in the heart of the Black Hills, a mountain range in western South Dakota that is covered in Ponderosa Pine, the pellet production facility uses wood waste and shavings from a sawmill operated by the same company. “All along we have had our own testing processes in place to check our quality and our consistency,” Follette says, “so this (PFI’s standards program) isn’t as big of a change as it is for some mills.”

The production team at the pellet mill checks for moisture content every half hour, for bulk density twice a shift or four times per day, bag fines hourly and durability once per hour. Because the mill receives virtually the same byproduct (from the sawmill) for all pellets, outside testing for Btu and ash is only performed once per month, Follette says (testing was done weekly when the mill first started 20 years ago).

For Follette and others who work at mills that have operated for decades and have allowed the market for proven, quality product to govern their ability to financially succeed in pellet production, the prospect of new testing is difficult to accept. “In no way am I saying that I’m against the standards,” he says, “because I’m not.” This is his problem. “If you already have your own testing labs and equipment onsite, then why are we going to send them off to another lab?” he asks. “That is what is tough for the mills that have been there the last 15 to 20 years that are surviving and making good product, to suddenly be told that you are going to have this much of an increased cost in the production of your pellet,” and, more importantly he says, “you are going to change nothing.”

Follette estimates that typical costs associated with PFI testing will run between $110 and $140 per week. In one instance, he notes, a company has said it will cost $100,000 per year for testing it already does. Either way, he says, the percentage of money devoted to testing will be the same for a large mill as it will for a small mill. “I agree that we need the standards and the certification, but it will take about two to three years to work all the bugs out and that will be very expensive in the meantime,” he says.

Jennifer Hedrick, executive director for PFI, believes the standards effort will be worth it. "No one enjoys being told that their costs of doing business will increase; however, we continue to stress that participation in this program is an investment in the industry," she says. "The companies with the most consistent quality stand to benefit the most from the system," she adds, noting the program's ability to offer a level playing field.

The Outcome of Certified Pellets

Mike Curci, business development manager at Indeck Energy, travels 8,000 to 9,000 miles per month to talk with existing and prospective clients about pellets. He is also the chair of PFI’s Commercial Fuel Committee and a strong proponent of the standards program with the end-user in mind. “I think the main thing is that if we produce bad fuel, and you turn consumers off, it is hard to convince them to start burning pellets again,” he says.

Wiberg shares the same sentiment about the risk of allowing an uncertified product to enter the market, a practice that has allowed everything from copper remnants to contaminated material fragments to show up in the market within the past four years. “The analogy I use is that if you are a pellet customer, you bought a pellet stove and if you like your experience you are probably going to tell five friends,” Wiberg explains. “But, if you hate your experience you are probably going to tell 50 people.” The bad experience can be directly linked to poor performing pellets that produce high ash amounts, he says.

The standards program, according to Curci, is actually a selling point. On most trips, customers ask about the status of the program and what each grade means in terms of pellet performance. The customers who already understand the program and what it will mean for pellets they sell seem to hold a strong opinion on the idea of a bag including a certified label. Cursi says he has been involved in some meetings, including one, in which the message of the main buyer–Tractor Supply Inc.–resonsated with several of the pellet producers in attendance and shows why the industry needs to prove it has great fuel. “The buyer said to the producers, ‘if you aren’t PFI compliant with the standard program, I’m not going to buy your fuel.’”

For Curci, participating in the PFI standards program makes sense because the buyers want certified fuel. But for Wiberg, although he would agree with Curci, there is more to participating in the standards program. As the lab manager for Biomass Energy Labs in Georgia, the only lab in the U.S. certified for pellets headed to Europe, he says the link between the PFI standards and the ability of a producer to export is strong.

When Wiberg and others performed the standards rewrite in 2011, he says, he used large sections of the ENPlus standards used for pellets in Europe, as the starting point for the PFI standards. In fact, he is the head of the U.S.-based delegation that helped write the European standards. “If you took the documents for the ENPlus standards and the PFI standards, you would see a lot of the exact same language, there were exact paragraphs pulled out and repurposed for the PFI standards.” For offtake agreements with European utilities, or for large shipments sent to Europe, producers need to comply with those ENPlus standards.

The standards might not be the same, but they are very similar, he says. For the PFI version, premium pellets are the best (lowest ash content) and in Europe it is A1. Although the European standards also include a high ash grade (called bulk grade), it doesn’t compare to PFI’s utility grade. The European standards will also soon include industrial grades, I1, I2 and I3 for use in industrial settings and power facilities.

Because of that, he says that the path many producers in the U.S. are taking with PFI standards implementation is the right one. Many are buying the equipment and preparing onsite labs for testing, all of which will help them better understand the process, time, and money it will take to offer great fuel in the U.S. markets and potentially, bulk shipments bound for Europe. Still, creating a more confident and willing pellet consumer or partaking in an export project might not be enough for some producers to participate in the standards verification process.

The Waiting Game

Because of the pending November elections, the agencies responsible for approving the NSPS are stalling. Because of the delay, people who are excited for the standards to be fully implemented are waiting in anticipation, while others who could have to cope with new expenditures that result in zero fiscal gain, are simply waiting.

“I don’t think anybody is ready to jump in with both feet until the government has put their final stamp of approval on it,” Follette says of the delay in the NSPS that would essentially force producers to participate in the standards program or lose the opportunity to supply to the bulk of the U.S. markets. “Why expose yourself to the financial risk until you have to? Why spend all the extra time to be certified now if you really don’t need to be until the government finally says, here is the deadline, you will now have to do it.”

Wiberg doesn’t disagree, but he does add that, “once we see that (the NSPS)... we will really start gaining ground with the standards.”

Author: Luke Geiver
Features Editor, Pellet Mill Magazine
(701) 738-4944
[email protected]