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Demand for Biofuel Makes Chips Attractive: Trelan Whole Tree Chipper Is Integral to Maine Timber Harvester’s Operations

Trelan Chipper Integral to Operations for Maine Logger

By IRI Staff
Date Posted: 6/1/2007


            The price of oil has jumped to record highs, and the federal government is pouring millions of dollars into biomass fuel research and incentives for biomass production.

            Wood chips have become a viable product for biofuel. This in turn has made it profitable to harvest smaller woodlots with dense, low-value timber.

            Many sawmills already generate more power with wood biofuel. Robbins Lumber in Searsmont, Maine, for example, uses 100 tons of wood chips per day to fuel its boiler system, which creates 90% of the power the mill requires. Last year, a $6.9 million upgrade was completed to the Greenville Steam Company facility in Maine, a 16 megawatt biomass-fired power generation facility. In addition, five power plants that would be fueled by wood chips have been proposed or are being built in New England, including a 50 megawatt plant in Berlin, New Hampshire that may use up to 500,000 tons per year.

            Worldwide, biomass power is the most widely used renewable energy source and is the fourth largest global energy source — behind only coal, oil and natural gas.

            In the U.S., timber harvesters may play a major role in the quest for American energy independence. Already, some are taking advantage of the sharp increase in demand for biomass fuel in the form of wood chips.

            As the price of oil has soared and wood chips have become a viable biofuel product, it has become more profitable to harvest smaller woodlots with dense, low-value timber.

            In Waldeboro, Maine, for example, a landowner recently sold timber off his 70-acre, 50-year-old white pine plantation. The harvesting contractor, Gordon Libby Forest Products, processed the wood cut on Thomas Hill Farm into biofuel chips.

            Gordon, who lives in nearby Jefferson, was recommended to the owner by a consulting forester. Gordon has strong family ties to the forest products industry. His father and grandfather were loggers and also owned and operated sawmills in mid-coast Maine.

            Gordon entered the forest products industry when his older brother, Harlow, bought one of the first mechanical skidders in the mid-coast Maine region. Gordon kept things running after Harlow’s untimely death and has steadily built up the business to become one of the most active and respected timber harvesters in Maine.

            Gordon’s company, with 10 employees, has witnessed the increased demand for chips for biofuel. Fuel chips account for about 75% of his business now. The company is not new to chipping, however; Gordon began chipping operations in 1984. He has tried to reduce some of the volatility in the chip market. (In the 1990s, for example, when chip markets were depressed, he reverted to hauling pulpwood.) Now he secures long-term contracts with mills; he has an eight-year contract to supply fuel chips to one mill customer, and the deal includes an 80% payoff if the mill switches to another fuel.

            Gordon took one look at the stand of overgrown white pine at the farm in Waldoboro and knew immediately how the landowner could earn good money for the low-grade material and how Gordon could make a profit: a whole tree chipping harvest.

            The landowner wanted to improve the overstocked white pine plantation, planted some 40 years ago by a well-intentioned former owner. Subsequent owners failed to thin the plantation, which would have allowed for more valuable saw timber or pulpwood to establish and grow. After consulting with a forester, the landowner adopted a management plan that included a profitable harvest by producing biofuel chips.

            The dense forest had been attacked by white pine weevils, creating a thick mass of multi-stemmed, badly deformed trees. Overcrowding and white pine blister rot also had taken their toll, killing hundreds of trees. “You could barely walk through or even see through that stand,” Gordon recalled. In addition, the landowner wanted open stocking, low slash debris, and had other concerns about aesthetics.

            Mitch Kihn, a forester with Mid-Maine Forestry, prepared a forest management plan for the owner’s property, which is under a conservation easement that prohibits development. For Mitch, a whole-tree chipping operation made sense.

            “The contorted nature of many of the trees would have required more labor to render them into round-wood pulp than the wood was worth,” said Mitch. “Plus, it would have left a lot of slash behind on the ground. Chipping allows the operation to be economically viable as well as creating a more receptive seed bed for future regeneration.”

            Mitch calculated a basal area of 188 square feet per acre and recommended the stocking be reduced by about half to meet the owner’s long-term objectives of aesthetics and recreation.  With Mitch’s assistance, the owner marked the trees that were to remain with orange flagging, choosing the healthiest, most vigorous trees. “We chose to save what was deemed to be the healthiest and-or best formed candidates, but even these were not terribly exceptional,” said Mitch.

            The week-long harvest began with Gordon’s John Deere 653G track-mounted shear harvester cutting several haul roads throughout the stand. The haul roads enabled the operator to then pick away at the unmarked trees, an extremely difficult task in the dense forest. In fact, the harvester got stuck in the dense mass several times, but the operator was able to cut his way out.

            A John Deere 648E grapple skidder followed, dragging the trees to a hayfield that served as the landing. Piles of branchy pines were formed around the perimeter of the field, and the few saw logs that were harvested were set aside for processing.

            Gordon’s company is equipped with a Trelan 21-L whole tree chipper. It processed the ugly pine trees into fuel chips as fast as the skidder could bring them to the landing. The capacity of the Trelan 21-L is a tree 21 inches in diameter. It can process a 21-inch diameter, 20-foot-long tree into chips in seconds.

            The Trelan model 21-L whole tree chipper is powered by a 540 hp diesel engine and is equipped with a self-contained loader with cab. It can produce a variety of chip sizes, from 5/8-inch to 1-1/2 inches. A two-knife cutter wheel is standard and a three-knife option is available. Other features include high discharge velocity, reverse pivot top feed wheel to maximize pull-in power, deluxe operator cab, massive chipper bearings and shaft for longer life, and a reliable, heavy-duty pump carrier. The Trelan model 21-L is built with a fifth wheel towing set-up.

            Trelan chippers in the L model series are equipped with roomy, deluxe cabs including heat and air conditioning, fully adjustable seat with joystick controls and tinted glass. An optional curved discharge allows chips to shoot at an angle toward the hitch. The loader transport position makes a compact towing package while evenly distributing the weight of the machine.

            The machine has proven to be flexible and reliable for Gordon. “This is a very favorable machine,” he said, “easy to maintain and very durable.”

            The model 21-L is the second Trelan chipper Gordon has owned, and he has been running it for eight years. Modern whole tree chippers are critical to the wood chip fuel industry and can enable timber harvesters to make a profit in low-value timber.

            Semi-tractors with open-top trailers were used to capture and haul the chips, making four to five round-trips per day to Robbins Lumber, which is about 23 miles away. At the sprawling 40-acre Robbins mill, trailers are lifted 40 feet at the dump station. Once offloaded, the chips are used as biofuel to power the lumber company’s 1.2 megawatt cogeneration plant, which uses about 100 tons of chips daily.

            The harvest at Thomas Hill Farm produced about 300 tons of biofuel chips that were supplied to the mill, eight cords of saw logs and two cords of hardwood firewood for the landowner. The landowner also kept about one ton of chips to provide as a ground covering for a child’s swing set and hiking trails and also for landscaping mulch.

            The resulting stand is what foresters refer to as a shelter forest. Generous spacing between trees allows sunlight and rain to penetrate while preventing soil erosion. This will promote natural regeneration that, if left unchecked, will likely consist of pin cherry, spruce, fir, maple, and more white pine. Intentional stocking with sugar maples may also play a role in order to expand an adjacent sugarbush so that future generations can continue the tradition of making maple syrup.

            The remaining trees, although released from overcrowding, are now susceptible to blow down and breakage. They did not develop root systems in their early years that may enable them to withstand high winds that are now able to blow through the stand.  In fact, high winds knocked down dozens of trees shortly after the harvest, several of them snapping 10 feet or more above the root swell. Some trees also show signs of needle burn since the sun is able to penetrate the forest for the first time in decades.

            Despite these problems, however, the forest now is much more attractive and affords more recreational opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, and cross-country skiing. For the first time in several decades, visitors to Thomas Hill Farm can enjoy outdoor recreation in the former plantation, and they can get to areas of the farm that previously were inaccessible because of the dense forest.

            The harvest along with additional improvements by the landowner also has benefited wildlife. In areas where equipment removed the needle mat from the ground, the landowner seeded with a conservation mix of creeping fescues, annual and perennial ryegrass, and clover. When the vegetation began to grow, it attracted more wildlife; wild turkey and deer grazed heavily. With the forest opened up, owls had a new hunting ground from which to snatch unsuspecting mice and moles. Some of the skidder ruts filled with water and eventually frogs, which quickly became a feast for raccoons.

            As the U.S. strives to reduce reliance on foreign oil by developing alternative sources of energy, cut carbon emissions and compete in a global economy, the biofuel and fuel chip industry is still a volatile one due to fluctuating prices for oil and other fuels.

            However, with high oil prices and the push to develop alternative, domestic sources of energy, many timber harvesters see a promising future in wood chips and whole tree chipping harvests. Mitch agrees.

            “It has made a comeback from maybe four or five years ago,” he said, “when stumpage price dropped from $1 a ton to 50 cents and then to almost nothing. Now it’s up to $2. I expect it will stay strong, viewed by the power companies as a green, renewable source of energy.”




 






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