By R. Bruce Striegler

Pinnacle Renewable Energy Group’s Vaughan Bassett, Vice-President, Sales and Logistics explains that the company began work on its Prince Rupert Westview Terminal in the fall of 2012, completed construction and began commissioning at the end of 2013. “We experienced issues during commissioning and were not able to take full advantage of the ship we had at berth in early December 2013. A month later however, we had resolved most of those issues. By now, our sixteenth vessel, loading in mid-October, things are running smoothly.”

Pinnacle Renewable Energy Group is a private, family-founded business in operation for over twenty years and is the oldest established pellet producer in Western Canada. Driven by demand largely from Europe, wood pellets have become the fuel of the future as large coal-burning electric generating plants either co-fire with wood pellets or convert them to burn wood pellets. British Columbia accounts for about 65 per cent of Canadian capacity and production, while Alberta, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland collectively account for 35 per cent.

As of 2012, Canada had 42 pellet plants with annual capacity of three million tonnes, and operations in B.C. tend to be larger than those in Eastern Canada; B.C. plants each produce about 150,000 tonnes annually. Today, Pinnacle operates six pellet plants across B.C. with a production capacity well over one million tonnes annually. B.C.’s wood-pellet industry has grown in recent years as operators are capitalizing on raw material resulting from a mountain pine beetle infestation that has made a lot of wood unsuitable for lumber, but fine for pellets.

Mr. Bassett says that the company has been part-loading at the Fibreco Terminal in Vancouver and part-loading from the Westview Terminal in Prince Rupert. “We’re keeping our supply chain at a normal level as there is no infinite room for storage of wood pellets. The vessels we’re currently using are 50,000 tonne capacity.” He suggests that as reliability increases at the Westview Terminal, there will be more shipments. The Prince Rupert facility is designed specifically to receive wood pellets by rail from production facilities in the interior of British Columbia, store them in silos and load them to bulk cargo vessels bound for European markets.

“It sounds inefficient, but shipping from the West Coast of North America through the Panama Canal to the United Kingdom provides a surprising number of vessels who load material in Europe and ship to China. Once there, they’re empty but need to sail back to Europe. We offer them a part-paid load, sort of a back-haul. They get across the Pacific in ballast, and we load them up and send them back out into the Atlantic.”

Construction of the $42-million facility included private rail storage tracks, wood pellet receiving and unloading, conveyor and ship loader systems and at full build out, pellet storage will be provided by up to seven silos. Bassett says, “Currently, we have four silos, each 12,500 tonnes for a capacity of 50,000 tonnes. We have sufficient rail car capacity to deal with 36 cars a shift, although we’ve done 64 cars in one day.” This state of the art terminal is able to unload eight rail cars per hour, approximately 1,000 tonnes per hour. The Westview Terminal accommodates Panamax class vessels up to 75,000 DWT (deadweight tonnes) with a loading rate of 2,000 tonnes per hour.

Mr. Bassett says the plant commissioning and early operation proved difficult. Local residents found the noise, dust and odour from the new terminal hard to take. Pinnacle Renewable Energy and the Prince Rupert Port Authority implemented an adaptive management plan to deal with the issues. Noise was of the greatest concern, and technical adjustments to gear box motors on the terminal’s bucket elevator system were made. Noise deflectors were installed, although they proved less than successful, requiring further acoustical shielding within the structure. Some residents were unhappy with dust escaping from silo vents, requiring vents facing the community to be blocked-off. Venting is carried out on the ocean side, generally when there’s an off-shore breeze. Aeration fans required to prevent the stored pellets reaching unsafe temperatures are used sparingly. “I think that the dust containment story at Westview has been a tremendous success.”

“The wood pellet business is a slim-margin business, not a lot of money per tonne, so a company needs to move a lot of volume, and that’s what we’ve focussed on.” Mr. Bassett says that fibre supply remains an issue they monitor, while other challenges include sawmills closing down. “It’s not exactly the format we wanted, but we’re managing to get the job done.” In terms of new markets, Bassett points out that last year South Korea imported in the order of 250 to 300 thousand tonnes of pellets. He says this year they’re going to have about a million tonnes, adding that the domestic market also looks good. “I think we’re on a growth trajectory, growing our volumes. The Westview Terminal along with our newest plant in the Okanagan are all part of that growth strategy.”