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Making the Grade

U.S. pellet manufacturers will soon have to jump another hurdle to get their pellets on the market.


December 1, 2010
By Heather Hager

U.S. pellet manufacturers will soon have to jump another hurdle to get their pellets on the market.  It’s a hurdle that is likely already familiar to large-scale producers who ship wood pellets to European utilities, which often require pellets to meet set specifications.  The remaining pellet producers will now be following suit, with regular third-party certification of all bagged and bulk pellets sold for U.S. residential/commercial pellet heating appliances. 

Pellet standards are being developed by the Pellet Fuels Institute (PFI) based on current European standards and will be regulated by U.S. law through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as early as mid-2012.  This is because the EPA is updating its 1988 standards for residential wood heaters, including pellet heating appliances, to minimize particulate emissions. Burn quality and emissions depend on the type and quality of fuel.

At first glance, Canadian pellet producers might think themselves unaffected by the new U.S. pellet standards.  After all, only a very small fraction of Canadian pellets are now exported to the U.S. residential market.  In fact, pellet exports to the United States have been close to zero since 2009, according to the Wood Pellet Association of Canada (WPAC)’s executive director, Gordon Murray.  That’s likely because of several factors, including a strong Canadian dollar, subsidies to U.S. wood biomass users from the Biomass Crop Assistance Program, and additional U.S. pellet production capacity, he says.

Although these pellet standards will not be mandatory in Canada (yet), Canadian pellet producers will have the option to become certified and produce graded pellets (e.g., premium, standard, utility pellets), says Chris Wiberg of Twin Ports Testing, who is co-chair of the PFI standards committee.  And that could work to those producers’ advantage.

First, they’ll gain a market advantage over those who don’t sell third-party graded pellets.  Pellet producers currently can make claims such as “premium pellets” on their bags, but there’s no set definition for premium, and the consumer must trust the advertising claims, notes Wiberg.  Consumers don’t want to buy a winter’s supply of a product that is going to give them problems.  On top of that, pellet heat is not promoted as simple and convenient if consumers have to fuss with low-quality fuel.

Second, it will set producers up to implement ISO pellet standards once they’re developed.  An ISO technical committee is evaluating the suitability of the European Union’s pellet specifications for ISO as they become finalized as EU standards, says Wiberg, who’s on one of the ISO working groups. Once ISO standards are finalized, he says, the intent is for USA, Canada, the EU, and other countries to adopt them so everyone’s using the same methodology.  He predicts a three-year time horizon for that to happen.

The costs of accreditation will be fixed, regardless of the operation’s size.  However, sampling and testing will be based on production volume, with cost estimates of 50 to 53 cents/tonne, says Wiberg.  It’s a small price to pay for clear benefits to pellet producers and the industry as a whole.


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