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February 2006 - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal





Long time wood pellet player Pinnacle Pellet recently expanded operations, opening a new pellet plant in Williams Lake, BC, which is handling a lot of shavings from mountain pine beetlestricken timber as feedstock.

By Jim Stirling

The big colourful sign on the side of Pinnacle Pellet’s new building in Williams Lake, BC, proclaims: “Using Our Resources Wisely.” And Pinnacle Pellet is doing just that. Pinnacle Pellet’s core business is converting planer shavings into pellet fuel. It’s utilizing wood residues to add value; it’s a green product that burns efficiently and the pellet manufacturing process creates jobs. Yet while wood pellet energy is all the rage in parts of Europe, the domestic and North American markets are developing at a considerably slower pace. It seems the lowly wood pellet can’t get the respect it deserves. But as fossil fuel prices soar and wood pellet awareness gathers momentum, that could be about to change, big time.

Rob Swaan (inset) is a partner in Pinnacle Pellet with his brother, Jim. Between the company’s operation near Quesnel, BC, and the recently opened plant in Williams Lake, Pinnacle now produces 32,000 pounds an hour of wood pellets.

Jim and Rob Swaan, brothers and partners in Pinnacle Pellet, have been demonstrating the virtues of wood pellets since the mid-1980s. “We’re the longest established pellet plant in Western Canada,” points out Rob Swaan. The business evolved from a food pelletizing process on the farm to converting shavings to wood pellets. Their first machine cranked out about 1,000 pounds of pellets an hour. Now Pinnacle Pellet produces about 32,000 pounds/hour, between its flagship operation near Quesnel and the recently opened plant in Williams Lake in British Columbia’s Cariboo country.

Swaan recalls when Pinnacle first approached licensees in the Quesnel area to acquire their dry planer shavings. He was greeted with a mixture of bemusement and a willingness to benefit from a hitherto waste product. Such was wood pellet’s profile.

The Quesnel plant began servicing the domestic market through packaging the wood pellets. “People were not familiar with pellet fuel and often we worked with customers who either had no access to natural gas or were environmentally conscious,” he explains. The environmental benefits of wood pellet fuel have been well documented. “It’s an all-natural product and it’s one of the most carbon neutral products available,” says Swaan.

Today, the Quesnel plant produces around 25 different products. Pellet fuel is the primary product but horse beddingand cat litter is also produced, with different sorts and custom packaging.

Through the years, Pinnacle gradually exceeded the fibre sources available in the Quesnel area and began bringing in shavings from the Williams Lake region to the south. They looked at sourcing fibre in Williams Lake and talked with the people at the TransCanada Williams Lake Power Plant—which utilizes “waste” products from sawmills in and around the city—prior to going ahead with a pellet plant in Williams Lake, says Swaan.

“With our experience in Quesnel with the wood pelletizing process, we were able to manufacture and put this plant together to include the latest technologies. It was more a combination of small factors earned through knowledge than a blinding flash of breakthrough technology.

“The way we handle material at the Williams Lake plant is much improved, with some of our engineering and that of Allied Blower’s, and we’ve improved our product drying technology. There’s a more efficient flow from the raw material to the finished product,” says Swaan. Allied Blower also supplied the blower equipment for the Williams lake Plant. Technology improvements on the computerized electrical side have similarly contributed to plant efficiency.

The primary machines in the Quesnel pellet manufacturing process have also been installed in the Williams Lake plant. For example, the heated shavings from the plant’s live infeed deck are directed through double in-line augers to a Bliss Industries hammermill. Downstream in the process, two identical Andritz pelletizer machines accept the regulated flow of prepared sawdust to convert to pellet form. Swaan says much of the rest of the plant’s equipment, with the exception of machinery like vibratory conveyors, has been modified by Pinnacle at its shop in Quesnel.

The raw material for pellet manufacture is pine shavings at the Williams Lake plant, most of it emanating from mountain pine beetle-stricken timber. The Quesnel plant uses dry pine and fir shavings. Together, the two plants employ more than 30 people.

A Bliss Industries hammermill (far left in photo) at the Williams Lake plant. The Williams Lake plant features the same primary machine equipment as Pinnacle’s Quesnel plant.

At least 75 per cent of pellet production at Williams Lake is destined for overseas markets including Belgium, Denmark and Holland.

“We’re looking at different market development overseas and local industrial users, which means Western Canada,” continues Swaan. For example, Tolko Industries, a neighbour in Williams Lake, utilizes Pinnacle Pellets in its sawmill’s energy plant. Servicing the greenhouse market in the BC Lower Mainland is another market.

“We’ve worked with different ways of converting the pellets to energy and use it to
drive new industrial applications. The kind of technology that could be used in dry kilns,” suggests Swaan.

The escalating price of natural gas is making wood pellet fuel increasingly attractive to a range of new potential users, he adds. There’s no shortage of fibre in the bush suitable for wood pellet manufacture, notes Swaan. The problem is it’s not economical right now to recover it; the costs involved exceed what the market would pay.

The vast tracts of timber in the BC Interior infected by the mountain pine beetle remain merchantable for conversion to lumber and other products. When they become unmerchantable—and the timing of that is a topic of considerable debate—the fibre would then be suitable for whole log chipping for pellets.

In parts of Europe, slash burning is prohibited, which means the material has to be used in alternate ways. But again, the market won’t justify the cost of recovering the material from the bush here, explains Swaan. Perhaps, he suggests, the cost of energy and/or a clean-up or salvage incentive from the provincial government may one day justify the costs involved. “I’m afraid the market has to mature in North America far greater than it has to date.”

Nevertheless, while it’s been a tough road to travel at times for Pinnacle Pellet, hard work and persistence has also generated its rewards, says Swaan. One of the features of being a local pioneer in your field is research and development. You’re always trying different ways of doing things. Some work, others you prefer not to talk about. Surprises, good and bad, come naturally with the territory of better utilizing the total forest resource.


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