From Sweden throughout Europe
The use of biomass pellets for energy dates back to the 1970s when alternatives to fossil fuels were sought in the wake of the energy crises of the decade. At this time, the technology used to produce animal feed pellets was modified to accommodate denser, woody materials. One of the industry’s early movers was Sweden due to its prominent timber industry, desire for increased energy independence and its commitment to environmental conservation.
Wood pellet production planning in Sweden started in the late 1970s with the decision to build a pellet plant in Mora. The plant started production in November 1982 and immediately ran into problems because costs were much higher than had been calculated. Equipment was developed for converting oil boilers to pellet-fired boilers. In practically all cases, however, they were highly inefficient, not least because of the poor pellet quality. During this first year the raw material was usually bark. Pellets often had an ash content of 2.5% to 17%. The plant in Mora was closed 1986.
In 1984 a pellet plant was built in Vårgårda. The plant’s last owner was the Volvo group. It was closed in 1989. In 1987 the first plant for pelletizing dried material was built in Kil. It was designed for an output of 3,000 metric tons a year. This plant is still in operation and is the oldest commercial plant in Sweden.
In the early 1990s the Swedish government came up with a proposal for taxation of mineral fuel. At this time it also limited carbon dioxide emissions. In a short time period the prospect of burning fossil fuels became unprofitable with biofuels stepping in to fill the energy void. This marked a turning point and the use of wood pellets started to grow rapidly.
Similarly ambitious clean energy programs emerged elsewhere in Europe. As a result, Europe leads the world in biomass pellet consumption to this day. The level of sophistication has risen on the continent to such an extent that manufactured pellets can be delivered in bulk via tanker trucks and deposited directly in residential storage areas, similar to the way gas stations are restocked with gasoline. In addition to residential heating, European power plants increasingly use biomass pellets to generate electricity as well as for energy in other industrial applications.
The wood pellet fuel industry became established in the mid-1980s with the introduction of the residential wood pellet stove. This appliance was capable of reducing particulate emissions well below the new requirements of the U.S.’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for wood stoves and of providing consumers with a new level of automation and convenience for heating with wood. Sales of pellet stoves increased rapidly in the early 1990s, reaching a peak in 1994 before leveling off and declining somewhat due to competition with natural gas stoves.
Pellet fuel sales followed the demand curve produced by residential pellet stoves. Residential use has accounted for approximately 95% of sales during this period, the balance being industrial use.
In 1984 there were two pellet plants operating in the Pacific Northwest of the US. The majority of pellet plants are owned by small companies established specifically for that purpose. However, recently many large facilities have come online in response to rising demand in Europe, which has emerged as a key export destination for Canadian and American made pellets.
The raw material used is commonly sawdust. Shavings and chips are used to a lesser extent. The industry is a mix of stand-alone plants, whose only business is pellet production, and plants that are part of other wood-processing companies. The stand-alone firms buy their raw materials on the open market and tend to be larger producers. The add-on operations usually process only the residues generated by the company’s wood processing activities.
The wood pellet industry has a history of slow plant start-ups. Many plants have required six to eighteen months after starting to normalize operations. The long start- up periods were due to a variety of factors including: variations in raw materials, inadequate design and engineering, use of worn-out or improperly sized equipment and inexperience on the part of management and production workers. Nonetheless, conditions continue to improve as the industry matures, firms more extensively research the process before entering the business, improved equipment, better overall plant design and installation by equipment/engineering firms, and the information and assistance provided by other pellet producers.
In addition to large production facilities, individuals—particularly in rural areas—have found it beneficial to produce their own pellets using small-scale machinery. These practical, often mobile pellet presses confer a certain level of energy self-reliance to the user as well as a means to derive economic benefit from readily available waste materials.