Thursday, June 11, 2015

US to begin mandatory survey of wood pellet varieties, volumes and ingredients

Rosalie Bianco founded Boulder-based
New Earth Pellets using bark beetle-damaged
trees to make the pellets.  Her company, like
others, will  have to start filling out this
survey in 2016. 
Dec. 2016 update - The EIA released its first data set showing production of wood pellets by state, region and capacity. Reports will be issued monthly.

June 2015 - The US government is poised to begin a monthly survey of pellet producers, much like it conducts similar surveys for coal, oil, gas, and other renewable technologies like solar panels.  The Alliance for Green Heat has been part of a coalition urging the government to include thermal biomass in reports, policies and data collection initiatives.

Some pellet manufacturers may say, “be careful what you wish for, lest it may come true.”  Efforts by the Pellet Fuels Institute and others to gather information about how many pellets are being produced each year have been met with resistance by many manufacturers. 

In contrast, response rates to surveys by the Energy Information Agency (EIA) are often 100% according to EIA staff because response to the EIA energy surveys is mandatory pursuant to Section 13(b) of the Federal Energy Administration Act of 1974.  Failure to respond to EIA surveys is punishable by significant fines.

The EIA-63C "Densified Biomass Fuel Report” will require any company that produces more than 10,000 tons (the EIA expects there to be about 150) to fill out the survey monthly, which the EIA estimates will take one hour to complete.  The EIA aggregates the survey responses and does not release any company specific data, a strict rule that follows with all energy surveys.

The EIA is an independent information agency within the Department of Energy.  Its long hallways are filled with wonky number crunchers who produce some of the most important data that industry and government rely on to understand energy markets.  Thermal biomass being selected at long last to join the club of major energy producers shows recognition of its contributions to heat homes and institutions across America is growing.

The EIA wants to know how much PFI certified and non-certified pellets manufacturers are making for both the bulk and bagged market.  For the PFI certified pellets, the EIA wants to know whether they are premium grade, standard or utility grade.

The survey also asks if pellets are being sold domestically or to foreign markets and even why plants may not be operating at full capacity.  The survey asks if extrusion machinery was not fully utilized, was it a shortage of raw materials, drying capacity, grinding capacity, or lack of a market for them?

As pellet exports for European electric plants have become more controversial, one relevant part of the survey covers the origin of wood fiber.  The survey lists 10 possible sources of fiber: from pulp wood quality roundwood to wood chips to logging residues to sawdust.  Then, it asks if this fiber is from a natural private forest, a planted private forest, or public land.  See more in chart below:

In addition to pellets, the survey includes other densified biomass such as wood bricks, wood logs and briquettes.  The results will likely show a rapidly expanding wood brick/log sector, which has the potential to produce far cleaner fuels than cordwood in residential wood stoves.  However, there is no quality certification process for these types of densified biomass in place yet, as there is for pellets.  As this market matures and supply begins to meet demand in upcoming years, there is likely to be more focus on the ingredients used in the fuel, just as there is now with pellets.

“This survey is a sign that the US government is taking thermal biomass more seriously,” said John Ackerly, President of the Alliance for Green Heat.  “Pellets can provide a clean and efficient alternative to fossil fuels to heat our homes and buildings.  We applaud the EIA for agreeing to undertake this survey so that all stakeholders can have a level of detail and transparency,” Ackerly added.

The survey has already been through one public comment period, where major stakeholders, including the Alliance for Green Heat, provided feedback and suggestions to the EIA.  It is now being sent out for a second 30-day public comment period.  

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