What the Wood Pellet Industry Needs

Astec Inc. Vice President of Engineering Malcolm Swanson weighs in on the importance of reliable, productive equipment and EPC contractors that can deliver pellet plants that perform, on time and on budget.
By Malcolm Swanson | December 21, 2013

When trying to answer the question, “What does the wood pellet industry need?,” it would be reasonable to think that the best answers would come from those in the industry, particularly those who are making pellets.  While I do not have permission to quote anyone, I can relate comments that I hear repeatedly from different people who are actually doing it.  Among these are:

Definition of sustainability requirements.
Clarification of pellet plant emissions requirements.
Reliable and productive equipment.
EPC contractors that can deliver plants  that perform as represented, on time and  on budget.

Currently, the last two bullets may be the most pressing. Thus far, most plants have been pieced together by owners or consulting engineers in the absence of anyone to manufacture pellet plants. On-site construction has been lengthy, as has startup and bringing the plants up to design production rates, and post-installation modifications have been abundant. The problems and needs associated with these situations are often expressed in forums at industry conferences and in private conversations, and it is safe to say that the industry leaders agree that EPC plant providers that can come through and deliver on promises and expectations are sorely needed. 

The challenge involved in answering this call is considerable.  These projects are complex and large in terms of site acreage, equipment and money. The range of expertise required is great; such a provider will have to have substantial strength.

I believe the best solution to these needs will come through a provider that offers standardized plants with designed-in flexibility.  The advantages of standardization are pretty obvious: design costs and time will be greatly reduced, as will shop fabrication time and on-site construction. Additionally, with standard equipment, it is possible to reliably predict performance.  The design has an opportunity to mature instead of being new every time, which allows capital investment and operating and maintenance costs to be driven down.  Such equipment can be built in modular designs such that on-site assembly is minimized. Investors and owners will then be able to possess a high level of certainty concerning how long it will take to get a plant up and running, costs, production rates and pellet quality.

So, with highly standardized equipment, does the rub come in dealing with all the variations of material and local conditions?  Some feel that “cookie-cutter” plants are not the answer.  I agree. However, standardization does not necessarily mean cookie cutter.  Many industries have long dealt with such variations within a set of standard designs and standard options. So covering all of the bases may not be as daunting  a task as it might at first appear.  Consider the major variables that must be addressed:  different wood species, moisture contents, local weather and climate, different emissions limits, different site conditions, different chip sizes and shapes, and dirty materials. The solution to several of these issues is that the process and equipment design must be robust.  For instance, the drying process must be designed and built such that it does better than just barely meet its guaranteed production rate at the guarantee moisture content. When some reserve exists, the system can then handle a little higher moisture content or a little colder weather.  It is true that the plant located in southern Georgia may perform better than the same plant located in Nova Scotia, but the Nova Scotia plant will still meet its guarantees. With such standard designs, changing corrosion-sensitive components to stainless steel to deal with hardwoods costs is not much of a design challenge.  Adding a cold-climate insulation package to prevent condensation and subsequent corrosion and to reduce heat loss is also relatively simple.

The industry will no doubt struggle with this equipment issue for some time yet.  In the end, cost and productivity will win. In that light, what makes sense: every plant being somewhat of a unique, “from scratch” design, or all components being standardized and properly matched to each other?  I believe in the standardized equipment approach.

Author: Malcolm Swanson
Vice President of Engineering, Astec Inc.