Wood pellets have become a major player in the Canadian bioeconomy, and rightly so since we have abundant forest resources and vast amounts of wood going to waste each year.
Wood pellets have become a major player in the Canadian bioeconomy, and rightly so since we have abundant forest resources and vast amounts of wood going to waste each year. Extracting the unwanted resources from the forest floor, where they have been abandoned, or from the sawmills, pelletizing them and shipping them off to Europe for a profit is a no brainer. But as European sustainability standards get increasingly stringent, pellet exporters may need to identify emission sources and reduce carbon footprints.
|The wood pellet industry has been trending to larger ships as it has matured and more pellets are exported overseas.
The U.K., for example, has a carbon plan with mandatory rules to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over time so that by 2025, it will see an 80 per cent reduction on gas emissions from the 1990 levels. Other European nations, such as Denmark and the Netherlands, are in the final stages of negotiating their rules with their power sectors. Anyone looking to export wood pellets into Europe must accurately account for the carbon that has been accumulated in the supply chain. Anything that uses fossil fuels in the process of obtaining the wood fibre, processing the fibre and transporting it from the forest to the mill and from the mill to the port must be included in the analysis.
Canadian pellet producers have a head start on our international competition because of our sustainable forestry practices, explains Gordon Murray, President of the Wood Pellet Association of Canada. “Virtually 100 per cent of our working forests are certified in Canada. So that gives us an advantage on the sustainability front.”
The Wood Pellet Association of Canada recently did an analysis of pellet plants in B.C., which is the farthest province from the European market.
Murray explains the results: “the bottom line is we already meet the most stringent standards, and a couple of reasons are that, in B.C., we use clean hydro electricity, which gives off no GHG emissions, and that we ship our pellets in bulk using ocean vessels which are incredibly fuel efficient compared to rail or truck transport.”
Murray explains that the amount of fossil fuels burned to deliver pellets to Europe is only a tiny fraction of what would be required for trucks or trains to deliver them over a similar distance on land. “We’re working on an analysis of what the situation will be in Eastern Canada.”
One of the first steps in setting up a new pellet plant requires a careful auditing of the carbon created in the process from the harvest to delivery. Futuremetrics has created a carbon footprint calculator that is free to access and has been very popular on its website. It assesses the amount of carbon generated throughout the process, including harvesting (if applicable), truck transportation, electricity in the pellet mill, transportation to the port by truck or rail, ship loading and the trip across the ocean.
“Each of these steps requires the use of fossil fuels,” explains William Strauss of Futuremetrics. “The policy that supports the use of wood pellets in Europe is all about carbon so they’re very interested in how much carbon has accumulated in the process of getting those pellets to the utility’s power plant. It has to be very carefully accounted for.”
Strauss has set up the calculator to give developers an idea of the feasibility of their ideas by measuring what kind of carbon footprint a project will generate so developers can take steps to minimize any accumulation. “Between now and 2025, which is quite a ways away, you’re going to have to do some work on the supply chain, minimizing carbon impacts of transportation and electricity,” he warns.
Powering the plant
Electricity is a major factor in the carbon footprint generated by wood pellets. Power generation in B.C. and Quebec is primarily from hydro, and thus it is a clean source; but some other areas, for example Alberta and Atlantic Canada, rely on a high proportion of coal-powered electricity. Changing the power source can go a long way in minimizing carbon impacts in regions where the electrical grid or the pellet mill itself uses fossil fuels.
“Regarding GHG emissions, probably the biggest controllable factor for producers is the chosen method of biomass drying. Generally speaking, those who operate dryers that run on fossil fuels will have a problem, but those who run dryers that are based on biomass (burning a portion of the incoming biomass to operate their dryer, which most pellet plants do) will have substantially lower GHG emissions,” says Gordon Murray.
Another way to reduce a pellet’s carbon footprint is to use less carbon in transportation, explains Strauss. “That might mean better diesel engines, but what many people are thinking is that because of low cost natural gas, much of the transportation structure is going to be changing to compressed natural gas or liquefied natural gas.”
Natural gas is cheaper at today’s prices and could cut transportation costs in half. On top of the pocketbook advantage, natural gas would cut the carbon footprint by a third compared to diesel fuel.
“The transportation sector is going to shift to natural gas,” Strauss predicts. “It’s going to lower the cost of wood, which means it’s going to lower the cost of pellets and it’s going to help.”
Though ocean vessels are more efficient than trucks or rail, there’s room for improvement when ships are traveling great distances. This is a challenge shared by exporters in all industries that share the desire to bring down costs and conserve fuel usage.
“Ships are also getting way more efficient,” says Strauss. “That’s obviously in the best interest of the shipping companies because they spend less money for every mile they move but there are expectations of seeing fuel use cut in half in the next few years by different hull shapes, bigger ships and slower speeds. They go a little bit slower, calling it Ecospeed. If they lower their speed by just a few knots (nautical miles per hour), they cut their fuel consumption by about 20 per cent.”
Gordon Murray claims that efficiencies have already been achieved in Canada, though he notes that the possibility of introducing biofuels for ocean transport and switching from diesel to biodiesel for land transport would further improve GHG emissions. We’ve also been trending to larger ships as the industry has matured and more pellets are exported overseas.
“We started using Handysize ocean vessels with around 30,000 tonnes of capacity. Eventually we worked up to Handymax ships carrying around 50,000 tonnes in Vancouver. Now, out of Prince Rupert, they’re shipping in Panamax carriers, which hold about 80,000 tonnes. And so the bigger the ship, the more fuel efficient it is and the better impact it has on the bottom line – both in terms of cost and GHG emissions.”
A similar story is being written in Eastern Canada as ports are building the infrastructure to accommodate larger ships for their pellet cargo but the carbon and fuel efficiency savings potentials are even greater. Much of the Eastern pellets are shipped on coaster class ships that can hold a range of between 5,000 to 8,000 tonnes of pellets.
“Now that the Port of Quebec City has put in new domes and they’re going to be handling the new Rentech product, they’re going to be using all Handymax or even Panamax-sized ships out of there,” explains Murray. Switching from 8,000 to 80,000-tonne capacity will improve the carbon footprint substantially.
Sustainable Biomass Partnership
There’s a new initiative in Europe that will make the research on a new pellet mill’s carbon footprint and other sustainability measures easier to understand. The Sustainable Biomass Partnership has been formed between six of the larger power utilities, both the U.S. and Canadian wood pellet associations and the European Industrial Pellet Association, to come up with a sustainable biomass certification system that incorporates the requirements of all the parties involved.
“We’ve got utilities from Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands and the U.K. all represented on this and we’re doing our best to incorporate the sustainability criteria from all of those countries so that our certification will cover trade into any one of those countries,” explains Murray. “We’ve taken absolute pains to understand what each country is doing and we reflected that in our certification system.”
The goal is to develop standards to allow biomass providers with the tools to demonstrate compliance with legal, regulatory and sustainability requirements for woody biomass. The group is doing this by adopting existing credible systems whenever practical, such as the forest management certification that is already in use in Canada.
The move to sustainable power and heat is a groundswell push to healthy air, land and water in Europe. The desire to limit pollution has driven the push from coal and fossil fuels for waste heat, and Canada has been a winner by providing pellets for this burgeoning market overseas. But as the critical public eye turns from the fumes expelled from the coal burning power plant to the source of the new fuel, pellet producers must be able to stand up to public scrutiny to demonstrate reductions gained in Europe aren’t offset by emissions at the source.