Environmental Wood Supply LLC isn’t afraid to take matters into its own hands.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise especially since both it and the cogeneration plant it supplies fuel to were founded on the philosophy.
When the St. Paul (MN) Cogeneration plant opened its doors in 2003, its owners — Market Street Energy and Cinergy Solutions — knew they would need to create a separate entity devoted solely to locating and purchasing clean wood waste for the plant.
Since then, Environmental Wood Supply has adapted to challenges. Now, instead of purchasing clean wood waste from a subcontractor, it goes out and grinds its own raw wood waste material.
St. Paul Cogeneration
Seeing the potential to produce cleaner electricity efficiently, Market Street Energy and Cinergy Solutions obtained a 20-year power purchase agreement for the sale of electricity generated through a renewable fueled, combined heat and power (CHP) plant.
Today, the St. Paul Cogeneration plant simultaneously produces up to 33 megawatts of electricity and up to 65 megawatts of thermal energy for local district heating provider District Energy St. Paul.
It also is the first CHP plant in the United States to provide “green energy” to a government complex — the Minnesota State Capitol Complex.
Of the estimated 600,000 tons of wood waste annually generated in the Twin Cities metro area, the St. Paul Cogeneration plant turns 280,000 tons of this into green energy each year, replacing 80 percent of District Energy’s use of coal and oil.
Because of this effort, carbon dioxide emissions have been reduced by 280,000 tons per year, while sulfur dioxide and soot emissions have been reduced by 80 percent and 50 percent, respectively.
The cogeneration plant also helped the city of St. Paul meet its carbon dioxide reduction goal as part of its regional commitment to the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives.
But managing a company that maintains fuel for a cogeneration plant comes with responsibilities and challenges not typically faced by businesses in other markets.
Environmental Wood Supply can’t have any days where it’s without wood to grind.
If Environmental Wood Supply falls short of processed wood fuel, the needs of St. Paul Cogeneration plant would not be satisfied.
In the beginning, when Environmental Wood Supply was contracted to operate the city of St. Paul’s Wood Recycling Center, it set up the site as a transfer station.
“Originally, we were going to rely on the local infrastructure to bring the product to us,” said Michael Marsollek, biomass fuel manager for Environmental Wood Supply.
Shortly thereafter, however, Marsollek said it began experiencing quality control issues with some of the companies it had subcontracted to grind the wood waste.
“So we decided to take matters into our own hands and not have the vulnerability of the entire operation in the hands of somebody else,” he said.
the Wood Waste Is
Environmental Wood Supply began its new endeavor by purchasing a Vermeer HG525 horizontal grinder for use at the city of St. Paul’s Wood Recycling Center for tipping fees.
As the quantity of wood material being delivered increased, it soon purchased several more grinders, including two HG6000 horizontal grinders and a TG525 tub grinder.
It wasn’t long ago that all of the grinders stayed on site at the recycling center.
If, by chance, a contractor or vendor couldn’t deliver the raw material for grinding, then Environmental Wood Supply would send out loader trucks to pick up the wood waste and haul it back to the recycling center.
That was until Marsollek noticed the loader trucks were driving past the St. Paul Cogeneration plant on their return trip to the recycling center.
“It was killing me to watch the trucks drive right by the plant,” he said. “So now we do quality control right there on the site, and then take it directly to the power plant.”
Today, the fuel supply company owns several Vermeer grinders and has branched out to perform grinding offsite.
Since making the transition, Environmental Wood Supply has grown to nine employees and its annual revenue has increased from approximately $500,000 to approximately $5 million.
Contractors pay Environmental Wood Supply to drop off wood product at the recycling center or when they need its crews to come to their job site to grind the product, Marsollek said.
However, if a contractor wants to drop off wood waste that’s already been ground, then Environmental Wood Supply pays him.
Performing grinding on storm cleanup projects is another service that the company recently started providing when a major fall thunderstorm swept through the Twin Cities area.
Ideally, Marsollek said it would prefer not to perform off-site grinding jobs, as part of storm cleanup or land clearing projects.
“I don’t want to take any work away from the local infrastructure that’s already in place and capable of doing the jobs. That’s not why we’re here,” he said. “But if there’s a need and they’re unavailable or unwilling, then we’ll step in and do those types of jobs. I’m not going to let the wood go to waste.”
The good thing is that many of the vendors who deliver ground wood waste to the recycling center also use Vermeer grinders, Marsollek said.
Usually, the vendors have used a 6-in. screen to grind the raw wood material they deliver.
Before hauling it to the cogeneration plant, Environmental Wood Supply crews grind it again using one of the company’s three Vermeer horizontal grinders and a 3-in. screen.
“I need to have the product at a four-inch minus for it to go though the power plant,” he said.
Grinding as much wood waste as they do, Marsollek said he wanted his crews to have reliable machines that were easy to maintain.
The grinders run an average of 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week. In its first year alone, the company’s Vermeer HG525 horizontal grinder logged approximately 4,200 service hours, which is approximately four times more than the average annual service hours logged on the machine.
“We go through a lot of screens and do a lot of preventive maintenance,” he said.
On average, crews change the grinders’ screens approximately every two weeks. And being able to change the screens in less than a half-hour helps keep its efficient and nonstop grinding process on track, Marsollek said.
Environmental Wood Supply is responsible for providing wood waste to the St. Paul Cogeneration plant 24 hours a day.
Marsollek said it needed a dealer who understood this and who sold reliable equipment that would help it when needed.
“Vermeer stood out umber one because they have an outstanding service center and they back their equipment. They’ve jumped through hoops for us and they understand that we’re not a typical client,” he said. “We have to grind and deliver wood to the plant every day. So they work with us to have mechanics on standby and backup equipment for us if we were to have a maintenance problem. But the selling point for us with the equipment has been that it does the job and is easy to maintain.”
As the cost of fuel continues to rise, Marsollek predicted more cogeneration plants like that in St. Paul will surface across the country.
In this industry, he said having exemplary customer service is important because it keeps wood waste flowing into the recycling center and the St. Paul Cogeneration plant successful.
And part of good customer service is showing up when scheduled and having reliable equipment to complete the job at hand.
“We’re getting a lot of requests to do work with our grinders,” Marsollek said. “Due to our professionalism and our equipment, we’re at the point where we don’t even bid anymore. People just call and offer.”
(Tara Deering is a technical writer for Two Rivers Marketing.)
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