Driving efficiencies: Pinnacle, Tolko partner to bring Alberta’s newest pellet plant online
By Mike Jiggens
About 180 kilometres shy of the Northwest Territories border is Pinnacle Renewable Energy’s newest pellet mill in High Level, Alta. – an operation the company shares with Tolko Industries Ltd. in a 50-50 limited partnership.
The operation is the second of Pinnacle’s shared ventures with Tolko. Their Lavington, B.C., shared facility, which was built in 2015, is a 75-25 Pinnacle-Tolko arrangement.
“The fact that the two parties are partnering again is a testament to a great working relationship translated into additional growth,” Scott Bax, Pinnacle’s chief operating officer, tells Canadian Biomass.
Construction on the High Level facility began in June 2019. But, work was paused during the winter months, as construction in a community that realizes an annual average temperature of one degree Celsius was deemed too great a challenge.
The COVID-19 pandemic also slowed things down somewhat, and the necessary health and safety protocols impacted the project’s time and costs, Bax says. But, construction resumed in March 2020, and the plant was successfully completed last November without any health issues arising among its workers.
The first pellets were produced in November, with production beginning in earnest in December.
According to Bax, this timeline is fairly typical for Pinnacle. Commissioning a facility usually takes about a year in order to see how it operates through the different seasons, particularly through the cold of winter, and to ensure cooling systems and other vital aspects of the operation respond accordingly during the warmer seasons.
“We’re right on track for where we’re supposed to be for March,” Bax says. “I’d say we’re probably ahead of where we expected to be.”
The High Level plant is a 200,000-metric-tonnes-per-year facility, ranking it “middle-lower” in size among Pinnacle’s mills in British Columbia and Alberta, Bax says.
The commissioning of the plant, along with another Alabama-based project slated for completion in the second quarter of this year, is expected to increase Pinnacle’s overall production capacity to 2.8 million metric tonnes per year – nearly a 25 per cent increase.
A close relationship
To produce the pellets in High Level, the plant mainly uses sawmill residuals, about 90 per cent of which comes from the Tolko sawmill next door. The remaining residuals are sourced from various other smaller mills in the area.
The plant’s location close to its biggest fibre supplier is a significant advantage for Pinnacle in its partnership with Tolko, Bax says.
“They’re the ones that have access to the fibre and are really producing the residuals,” he explains. “This is an opportunity for them to sell the residuals in a way that creates confidence long into the future.”
While the price for lumber varies widely, creating a cyclical market, Pinnacle has determined a fixed price for the pellets produced at High Level.
“Our price is set for the next 10 years. Our pellets are forward sold often for more than a decade,” Bax explains. “We’ve committed to supply it, so we put our time and energy in going out and doing that piece of our business. We tend to be a very stable business for people to work at, unlike oil and gas and other industries that are more cyclical. Our employees appreciate that.”
Inside the plant
Approximately 30 people operate the plant, providing stable jobs for Pinnacle’s workforce. The 24-hour operation has employees working four 12-hour shifts in a four-days-on, four-days-off cycle. However, the High Level plant is a largely automated operation.
The first part of the plant houses the fibre breakdown BioSizer machine from Vancouver-based Brunette Machinery. Moving along conveyors from Continental Conveyors, fibre then goes to a bed dryer manufactured by Prodesa, a Spanish company. Akin to a mesh colander, the bed dryer measures six metres wide by 54 metres in length, or “about half a football field,” Bax says. About a 10-centimeter layer of fibre is placed on top, and warm air is pulled through the fibre, drawing out the moisture.
The process also involves two hammer mills from CSE Bliss and six Andritz 26LM-II pellet mills. The plant’s Allied Blower air system from Surrey, B.C., blows out sawdust, shavings and chips.
Once pellets are formed, they go to a cooler, where they are screened through six EDEM screening vibrating conveyors from Optimil Machinery, and then loaded into rail cars for shipment from FibreCo, located in Vancouver. Pellets produced at the plant are exported to European and Asian customers to be used mainly for industrial power and electricity generation.
Pinnacle also installed a GreCon spark detection safety system to monitor the plant, along with fire and explosion suppression technology systems from CV Technologies.
The High Level plant represents Pinnacle’s first project that incorporates more than just the residual stream from its partnering mill. It also takes heat energy from Tolko to generate steam from waste wood.
“We really have an opportunity here to take this project where we’re co-located and link ourselves close to the residual stream. We’ve further driven more efficiencies and more sustainability in the business by utilizing the excess heat energy that Tolko’s already creating,” Bax says.
This will help make the industry even more sustainable than it already is, given that the fibre for the pellets is sustainably sourced. The drying energy is a by-product of Tolko’s bark-fueled energy system.
“Globally, society is becoming more attuned to not wanting to take sequestered carbon out of the ground in the forms of coal or natural gas and add it to the atmosphere,” Bax says. “Pellets are a step in our journey toward the way we create energy that’s more sustainable than anything we’ve done in the past.”
And Pinnacle’s new owners, Drax Group, are also focused on pushing that sustainability message forward with a zero-carbon, lower-cost energy future. The company was acquired by Drax in February of this year, and the deal closed in April.
“Drax is a world leader in creating meaningful change in the battle against carbon and the battle against climate change. They are already pushing beyond, aiming for a negative carbon future with the implementation of its bio energy carbon capture and storage initiative. It’s pretty exciting for us to be part of that. Any time a customer of yours purchases you as a business, that’s a compliment,” Bax says when asked about the news. •