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Delivering green energy

Prince Edward Island logger Joe O’Connor keeps pretty busy these days with a number of projects, including supplying biomass material to an energy systems plant in Charlottetown, whose plant offers green power—an especially important alternative in a province that relies
on imported electricity and oil for its energy needs.

By George Fullerton

Joe O’Connor’s logging operations keep him pretty busy.

O’Connor’s Kinkora, Prince Edward Island-based business has two distinct production streams: a conventional roundwood harvesting team with a Tigercat 622 feller buncher, Ecolog 580B harvester and Rottne 16 tonne forwarder.

The second operation borrows the Tigercat buncher, as required, to cut and bunch low grade trees for biomass production, and relies on a 2012 TimberPro TF830-B forwarder to move fibre to a Morbark 30/36 chipper. The chipper loads into walking floor trailers and a chip trailer, which are hauled by Western Star tractors. And the whole operation works with O’Connor and three or four employees.

Even catching O’Connor by phone at his home is a challenge. His wife, Dawna Lee, described his schedule: “Well, he will be home sometime—it might be 7 pm or it might be 11 pm, depending on what needs to be done.”

Even after telephone contact and a visit time was pinned down, tracking down O’Connor’s biomass operation was a bit of a faith-based process.

“Oh, I am way up the eastern end of PEI, near the community of Cambridge. Just call me on your cell phone when you get close,” he advised.

While the Island province offers a distinct and very pleasant rural landscape, such sketchy instructions offer little confidence for travellers tracking down a woods operation, and there is fear the exercise will provide more sightseeing than necessary.

Joe O’Connor (left) operates the loader on his TimberPro TF830-B forwarder. unloading biomass fibre on its way to the Morbark 30/36 chipper.

Fortunately, the concerns about locating the operation eased when a chip truck was spotted fueling at a roadside fuel station, and they dissolved completely when the friendly driver confirms it is O’Connor’s truck, heading back to the chipping operation for a load. However, there was little time to take in the sights, since the chip truck kept a very rapid pace, slowing only slightly to wiggle past overwidth farm implements on the narrow rural roads.

The chip truck eventually pulled in on the shoulder of the rural road, as a similar Western Star pulling a Manac walking floor trailer emerged from a dirt sideroad. Out pops O’Connor, and he exchanges greetings with the driver as they switch trucks. O’Connor heads the empty unit in on the side road, past a field of corn, and into a woodlot which extends into a low-bush blueberry operation and on to a clear cut of neatly bunched trees.

This operation is a straight land clearing job for blueberry development. O’Connor explained the landowner is expanding his blueberry production, and he was clearing a mix of hardwood and softwood which regenerated from a clearcut 20 to 25 years ago.

PEI has little wood processing capacity since the closure of J. D Irving’s Georgetown Timber saw mill in 2007. Harvested softwood is now trucked off the Island to mills in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

The Island’s roundwood capacity has narrowed to a few small scale sawmills supplying local markets.

Agriculture, on the other hand, is the major economic driver in the province and the world demand for wild blueberries continues to grow—and Island production continues to expand. International players operate processing plants on the Island, and some operations ship fresh product to out of province processing plants.

“This is a pretty good site for blueberry production,” explained O’Connor, while brushing a ground-hugging low bush blueberry vine with his boot. “This land owner already has an area in production on this lot, and there is a good bunch of vines present on this ground, so he will get it in production pretty fast.

“I’m operating with three and sometimes four employees, and myself right now,” explained O’Connor. “It is really difficult to find good qualified operators. A lot of talent is out west in the oil industry.”

O’Connor operates the forwarder and chipping operation, and he has one driver on two walking floor chip trucks. “We keep another driver busy on biomass chips to Port Hawkesbury, Nova Scotia, and I have another operator who switches between the Ecolog processor and the Rottne forwarder,” he said.

“I really do have a great crew right now. We seem to get a lot more work done than when I had six or seven people on the operation.”

On the day of this visit, the Tigercat buncher was idle near the chipper operation, and another Western Star and float was parked at the chip storage pile in Stratford along with a Volvo wheel loader used to pile and reload chips. The fourth Western Star was hauling a load of biomass to Port Hawkesbury.

The O’Connor biomass goes either directly to the PEI Energy Systems plant in Charlottetown or to a storage pile maintained in Stratford, just east of Charlottetown (above). They supply at least two loads of biomass chips every day, and three in winter conditions. Annually, the operation supplies around 18,000 tonnes to the plant.

After initial greetings, O’Connor fired up the Morbark chipper, used the remote control to aim the discharge spout to fill the Manac trailer, then mounted his TimberPro forwarder and began feeding great gobs of bushy immature trees into the feed chute of the chipper. Once the staged pile of trees was consumed, O’Connor fed in the massive pile from the forwarder’s bunks.

O’Connor purchased the TimberPro forwarder used from Massachusetts where it had been used in the oil and gas industry, hauling and laying timber pads. To adapt it for biomass forwarding, the bunks were widened and the load stakes lengthened.

“The TimberPro is a big strong machine and it has a powerful loader which we need to help feed the brushy material into the chipper. I have been really happy with the way it works for us,” said O’Connor.

The biomass chips are produced with a Mobark 30/36 whole tree drum chipper.

The chipper is powered by a 500 horsepower John Deere engine and has a live floor feeding system, assisted by top and bottom feed wheels. O’Connor operates the chipper with a remote control module in the forwarder cab.

The chipper has pintle hook and hitches behind the highway tractor for moves between operations.

The operation’s Rottne 16 tonne forwarder.

The chipper infeed opening is 31inches by 34 inches, with a 30 inch diameter top compression feedroll with internal drive, and a 14 inch diameter bottom feed wheel. The live floor infeed is 31 inches wide and just over eleven feet long, with two feed chains. The chipper assembly has a 36 inch diameter drum, with six Babbitt-style chipper knives and six Babbitt-style counter knives. O’Connor can chip a 30 tonne load in about forty-five minutes, faster when the knives are freshly sharpened. Keeping material clean, O’Connor explained, is key to maintaining knife sharpness and chipper performance.

O’Connor selected the TimberPro for the biomass operation in good part because of the power in the loader. It has the power to lift big and awkward grapple loads —and the power to help feed the bushy material into the chipper’s throat.

“The bunks on the TimberPro are widened to 13 or 14 feet and we are extending the stake height as well. It looks like I have a big load on there, but it is mainly just a lot of tops. Even when I have a huge load on the machine, it is not even close to its load capacity. It takes two forwarder loads to make a thirty tonne trailer payload, and it takes about forty-five minutes to chip the load.”

The O’Connor biomass goes either directly to the PEI Energy Systems plant in Charlottetown or to a storage pile he maintains in Stratford, just east of Charlottetown.

The energy plant’s biomass had previously been derived from waste wood from the Georgetown sawmill. When the mill closed in 2007, O’Connor established a supply contract for wood chips to replace the sawmill fibre.

They supply at least two loads of biomass chips every day, and three in winter conditions. Annually, the operation supplies around 18,000 tonnes to the plant. When bad weather slows woods chipping, O’Connor hauls from the storage pile.

O’Connor purchased their TimberPro forwarder used from Massachusetts where it had been used in the oil and gas industry, hauling and laying timber pads. To adapt it for biomass forwarding, the bunks were widened and the load stakes lengthened.

The energy plant mixes green wood chips with municipal waste and supplies heat and chilled energy to a number of institutions in Charlottetown including the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and the University of PEI Campus. The PEI Energy Systems plant is Canada’s longest-running, privately-operated, biomass-fired district energy plant. Operating since the 1980s, the energy system supplies 72 megawatts (MW) of thermal capacity and 1.2-MW of electricity. The electricity is used primarily by the biomass plant. The steam energy is delivered through a seventeen kilometre network of piping extending across the city.

PEI Energy Systems is operated by Veresen Inc., a diversified North American energy infrastructure company with interests in pipelines and power generation.

The district energy system’s biomass boilers and chillers offer a cost-competitive, cleaner and greener alternative for heating and cooling buildings, especially for a province that otherwise relies on imported electricity and oil for its energy needs.

O’Connor outlined that not only does biomass make a lot of sense on the economic and energy sustainability front for the province, but it also makes a lot of good sense from a forestry perspective—especially in a situation where it is uneconomical to produce pulpwood for out of province mills that have an oversupply of low grade fibre in their own backyard.

Without the biomass alternative, PEI forestry operations would basically have little choice but to leave low grade fibre to go to waste in the woods, pointed out O’Connor.

In addition to chipping low grade trees on land clearing operations, O’Connor also generates some biomass from his conventional logging operations.

“We use the buncher to fell on either operation,” he explained. “On logging jobs, the processors buck out the bunched merchantable logs and we usually forward the logs, and then come back and gather up the tops for chipping. But sometimes we do forward the biomass before the logs. We just make sure we don’t make a mess when we forward either product.”

The roundwood gear was on an operation near Kinkora, PEI. The primarily hardwood stand had been dropped with the feller buncher, and the Ecolog was processing out a few sawlogs, and mainly eight foot hardwood.

The O’Connor operation runs at a very intense pace, and every piece of equipment appeared to be very well maintained and clean and working hard. The operations exude efficiency and order. With four to five operators running eight pieces of mobile equipment, and good demand for biomass material, it looks like O’Connor will continue to keep busy.