The Turbines of Terra Bella
Glenn Duysen's hard work and
flexibility create a Bio-Tech Triumph
By Kurt Glaeseman
In 1966 Glenn Duysen had no idea
that his Terra Bella mill out of Porterville, California, would be selling
electricity by the turn of the century. At that time Sierra Forest Products was
just an office trailer and a sawmill still under construction. The target area
was in and around the Sequoia National Forest. Although there wasn't a big
market for white fir, the prices for pine were strong, and in the 1960s, the
Forest Service could allow a hundred million board foot of lumber to be
harvested in the Sequoia National Forest.
Only about 60 million was actually
taken, and Duysen realized there was a good business potential for the
remainder. That "remainder" grew even more attractive. With the
creation of the Golden Trout Wilderness, the competing Johnsondale mill, owned
by American Forest Products, suddenly had their log supply crimped.
General Manager Kent
Duysen at the log debarker.
Duysen bought the mill and decided
to shut it down: It was not on a railhead, and he did not like the idea that all
by-product had to be burned. Excess logs shifted to the Terra Bella plant, which
kept very busy with two shifts and 240 employees. In the meantime Glenn Duysen
moved his family down to Porterville. Older son Larry joined the Coast Guard,
and second son Kent finished high school. Both Larry and Kent would follow in
their dad's academic footsteps: All three have degrees in Forestry from Oregon
State, and now the three work together at Sierra Forest Products.
Glenn was always interested in
sawmill by-products and the possibility for on-site production of electrical
power. During the Jimmy Carter years, the price of gas shot up. Pulp chips had
already been vulnerable to a weak Japanese market; the price was down, but the
freight from Terra Bella to the Sacramento port was high. The Duysens saw some
real advantages if they could establish a biomass cogeneration plant at their
own mill. Under Carter's urging that Americans no longer be so dependent on
fossil fuels, the Feds mandated that if a private cogen plant produced more
electricity than it needed, the utilities companies had to buy the excess
electricity at fair market price.
All by-products (chips,
bark, sawdust) have a use.
The Duysens signed a 30-year
contract with Southern California Edison to buy their electricity and another
contract with Wellons to help them install a wood-burning boiler and
turbinegenerator. Using a refurbished turbine from the East Coast, the Duysens
had the plant on line and producing electricity by March of 1986. Although it
took seven years to get all the wrinkles out, the process was efficient and
worked consistently except for scheduled maintenance outages.
But the price of gas dropped, and
so did the price that Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas and Electric
were willing to pay small producers. Natural gas was downright cheap, and Edison
didn't think they needed the extra electricity. Faced with producing power at a
deficit, the Duysens regretfully shut down their biomass cogeneration operation
in 1995. Kent Duysen remembers those days: "We had been able to extract
steam to divert to the dry kilns for drying lumber. After the cogen shut down,
we installed a portable gas boiler to make steam, but by the year 2000 gas
prices went up. Our monthly gas bills suddenly soared.
LeTourneau log stacker
in for scheduled maintenance.
We needed to restart the cogen and
burn our own residue. If we needed steam, we might as well produce power."
The Duysens used the same basic equipment, but since it had sat idle for six
years, a Westinghouse crew had to check things over. It cost about a million
dollars, but the Terra Bella mill started producing steam again in January of
2001 and electricity two months later. No longer under contract with Edison
Electric, the Duysens can now sell their excess power through an electricity
broker via ISO (Independent Systems Operators). "Our own needs," says
Kent, "are a little variable.
We need only about 11 percent of
the electricity we generate, but during our eight-hour shift, we actually use
about 38 percent. We're selling it now one day ahead, and the demand is there.
We're thinking ahead to summer; maybe our extra power can help avoid some of
those rolling black-outs." The Sierra Forest Products (Terra Bella) mill
has never used landfill or burning to get rid of waste. The Duysens always
insisted on finding a use for by-products, although Kent admits that they did at
one time have trouble finding a home for what he calls Terra Bella's "Mount
Sawdust." (The sawdust is now purchased by dairies and by nurseries that
use it for planting and mixes.) All by-products are now a very valuable aspect
of the mill's profit margin. "Every last oink of the log is used for some
purpose," says Kent.
Logs are debarked at the mill. The
bark is transported to a screener for size sorting. Bigger pieces are channeled
through a hammermill and then a second screening. About a dozen gradations are
monitored: super fine for golf course greens ("Turf & Tee"), a bit
larger for humous and potting soil, and on up to decorative bark and the larger
Walk-On- Bark. There's even a specialty bark, mostly from white fir with no
cambium, for transplanting orchids in Santa Barbara. The Duysens encourage the
development of this bark market and intend to stay on the upper quality
About 30 percent is bagged on site
into two-three cubic foot bags. They will bag for other people, and encourage
them to bring their own bags. The rest goes out in bulk bins by truck or train.
Curiously enough, this new market has diverted an obvious source of fuel away
from the cogeneration system. "Sawdust and bark have too great a value for
us to burn," says Kent. "That means we need to bring in 20 loads a day
to fully fuel our boiler." Where does this additional biomass come from?
With more stringent agricultural waste burning restrictions, orchard residue
(almond, apricot, prune, walnut and citrus) is brought to the Terra Bella
The 52-bin sorter
eliminates need for green chain.
They also get ten loads a day of
construction wood waste from the Los Angeles area. This might include ends of
2x4s, pallets, lumber from demolished houses, cabinet shop scraps and green
waste. Metal is a problem: a sensitive set of metal detectors at the infeed
system sorts out anything with nails, bands, hinges, or metallic junk. The mill
cannot accept wood products that have been creosoted, painted or plastic coated.
Kent is still a little rueful about the Los Angeles garbage: "I never
thought I'd spend one day a month tramping through the dumps of LA. I kept
asking what I was doing there. But I had to analyze and see what was out there,
what we could use to make things happen for us." It's the modern search for
He speaks highly of the
ten-year-old California Biomass Association, which has always considered the
process of thinning a forest as a great social benefit. But there is more out
there than just forest thinnings. The search for alternative biomass was
accelerated when the Giant Sequoia Monument was officially established in April
of 2000. Suddenly thousands of acres of forest were off limits--for logs and the
resulting biomass needed for cogeneration. It was a shocking blow for the
Duysens. For ten years a Sequoia Monument bill, introduced by Congressman Brown
of San Bernardino, had floated around but died in committee. Local legislators
did not feel it was backed by good scientific research and failed to take it
seriously. Brown kept reintroducing the bill, and President Clinton arranged
some private discussions. Suddenly it was a done deal.
All of the Duysens worked hard to
get city, county, and California Assembly resolutions to halt this method of
land allocation. They were too late. Although he knows he has a vested interest,
he is adamant in his disapproval of the process: "The people weren't
involved. The process was done without public participation or dialogue."
Neither the Duysens nor the local elected officials were asked what they thought
or invited to the recognition ceremonies on April 15. Kent muses, "Clinton
came in with nine helicopters, spent 45 minutes of his time, and then was off to
LA for a Democratic fund-raising function. But it was our lives that were
We had employees who had worked
faithfully with us for years. We had to tell them it was over, their jobs were
gone. I don't care if it is a Republican or a Democrat move, there is something
wrong with the Antiquities Act if it has that much power. I'm not questioning
whether or not the President can use the Antiquities Act, but I do question the
limits of its scope and effect." With 330,000 acres of forest unavailable,
the Duysens knew there had to be cutbacks. They had been operating an auxiliary
mill in Dinuba and trying desperately to keep it and the Terra Bella mill going.
Each was cut back to a single shift, but the Sequoia Monument fallout dictated
harsh terms: The Dinuba mill had to be shut down.
The last year has been a bumpy one
for the Duysens-telling employees they no longer had a job, selling the Dinuba
sawmill, getting the Terra Bella cogen system up and running again. Kent feels
the Sierra Forest Products operation has now stabilized at this most southern
sawmill in California. There are currently 110 employees working the single
shift in Terra Bella. The operation hours are roughly from 5 AM to 1:30 PM, but
in the summer, due to California's interruptible electric program, the shift may
start as early as 3:45 AM. But as Kent points out, the Duysens are confident
that if they remain adaptable, they'll survive. And that extra electrical power
generated by the turbines of Terra Bella just might keep some community or dairy
or hospital or mall safe from the threat of the rolling blackouts.
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