In meetings last year, the Energy Task Force extolled the virtues of biomass as a coal alternative — but not without voicing concerns.
Some members of the task force worried that companies providing wood pellets would clear forests to produce them, nullifying any sustainable improvement.
It was for that reason that the bid for the first biomass experiment, wood pellets, recommended suppliers have sustainability certification from organizations like the Forest Stewardship Council, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative and the American Tree Farm System.
But none of the three companies that submitted offers had any kind of certification.
Carolina Wood Pellets was UNC’s original supplier and least expensive qualifying bid. It supplied pellets for a 20-ton test in September but later encountered difficulties securing proper railcars.
Lignetics, despite having the only bid cheaper than the price UNC pays for coal, failed to qualify for the same reason.
Steve Smith, former CEO and owner of Carolina Wood Pellets, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy Feb. 21 without notifying UNC. The University was then forced to change suppliers to WoodFuels Virginia, a move that increased costs by 7 percent.
Carolina Wood Pellets and Lignetics both said their use of recycled wood products from third parties for their pellets qualify as green practices. Neither company has been certified, and both were unable to verify the sustainability practices of their wood sources.
“Do I actually go out and research what they’re doing?” said John Utter, general manager for Lignetics. “No.”
WoodFuels Virginia sources its own wood. General Manager Jake Blondin said the company requires the loggers it hires be trained in the SHARP Logger program, a sustainability initiative developed by the Virginia Department of Forestry and other groups.
Blondin said WoodFuels Virginia is “aggressively pursuing” Sustainable Forestry Initiative certification, although he was unable to provide a definite timeline for when certification will be complete.
Stewart Boss, co-chairman of the Sierra Student Coalition, said it was a cause for concern that UNC had not found any certified suppliers. While acknowledging the difficulty of finding certification and the limited nature of the wood pellet market, he said these are not insurmountable obstacles.
“UNC is a top-tier university,” he said. “Surely there is a way to figure it out.”
Dennis Hazel, an N.C. State University professor who teaches forestry extension and made presentations on biomass to the Energy Task Force, said formal certification is difficult to come by because the market is currently so small.
He added that certification will become easier in the future as the industry grows and wood pellet producers attempt to comply with stricter sustainability regulations in European markets.
Ray DuBose, director of energy services, said the University is attempting to expand the market in North Carolina by purchasing large amounts of wood pellets.
After completing its first round of tests in March, the University is now looking to test torrefied wood, pellets that have been dried out to make them burn more efficiently. The torrefied pellets create energy outputs similar to coal.
DuBose acknowledged the University’s issues with lining up a reliable supplier for wood pellets.
“Something the University is going to have to address is whether the risk is acceptable,” DuBose said.
DuBose said UNC will issue a bid for torrefied wood this summer. In order to decrease chances that an unreliable supplier will disrupt tests, he said the University will take torrefied pellets from multiple sources simultaneously, a system similar to the one used for coal.
DuBose said he believes the University is still on track to wean itself off of coal, but it won’t be a simple process.
“We’ve got a long journey to get off coal by 2020,” he said.
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