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Proceed, But be Informed and Have a Solid Plan By Chris Wiberg | April 05, 2012

In my last column, titled "The End of an Era," I described a fundamental shift that I observed over the past year pertaining to standardization of the pellet fuels industry. Essentially, the industry has generally accepted that standardization is upon us and it is now time to implement programs that have long been in the works.

Since the last issue of Pellet Mill Magazine was published, the Pellet Fuels Institute and the American Lumber Standard Committee have finalized an agreement, and ALSC has accredited several auditing agencies and testing labs for the purpose of implementing the domestic residential/commercial densified fuel standards program. The European Pellet Council continues to add to its list of countries that are implementing the EN plus pellet certification scheme on an international basis. In addition, the Industrial Wood Pellet Buyers initiative in Europe to develop standard specification for industrial wood pellets has progressed by opening the door to U.S. pellet producer feedback through the U.S. Industrial Pellet Association. This provides collaboration critical in the implementation of a mutually acceptable standard for international shipments to European utilities.

Along with standardization, we anticipate better consistency within our fuel streams, better performance for the combustion appliances and mechanical handling systems, and of course, happier customers. Unfortunately, standardization is likely to result in some growing pains, as well. As an active participant in all of these standards development initiatives, I feel obligated to make you aware of a common theme that the industry as a whole needs to understand. These are new programs and will need to be refined as we identify shortcomings during their implementation. I am not trying to imply that they have not been thoroughly researched. Quite the contrary, but I think we can all relate to two concepts: there is always room for improvement, and it doesn't always work as well in practice as it did on paper. The implementation of standards is much like the scaling up of any new technology to commercialization. As you ramp up, you identify problems and then modify the design as necessary until it works the way it is intended. The difference is that when standards are specified in contracts, they become legally binding. We need to be very careful that in an effort to grow consistency and reliability within the industry we don't create a situation where producers are left holding the bag (or ship, literally) or worse yet, recalling it due to an unforeseen yet preventable issue. That is why it is essential for every fuel producer to fully understand any standard it intends to implement and to have a solid plan for implementation.

The best advice is to do your homework beforehand. All of these standards programs are well-defined. Take the time to read them carefully and relate them back to your process. Ask yourself if the standard is achievable for your facility, and how confident you are taking on the implementation. If you are not sure, then do more research or ask for help. Also, do not be afraid to bring questions or concerns with any of these standards back to the standards developers. In all cases, I can assure you that they are eager for feedback and want to improve them.

You should also carefully consider your quality team. Make sure your quality manager knows this is a primary responsibility and not just an additional duty. Select people who know and understand quality management or who have sufficient background and/or capabilities to be trained into the role. A meticulous mindset is very helpful here. In short, get the right people on your quality team. This also applies to your external support companies such as auditors, laboratories, logistics coordinators, and others. When in doubt, these entities should be able to answer your questions. If they cannot, you are probably working with the wrong people.

In a perfect world, there would be a simple step-by-step guide that everyone could use to gain compliance with these new standards, but every facility is unique with its specific feedstock materials, equipment, people, intended markets, etc. Compliance will need to be achieved one production facility at a time, each with its own unique circumstances. It's a step toward strengthening this industry through which we all will find growth. Proceed, but be informed and have a solid plan.

Chis Wiberg
Manager, Biomass Energy Laboratory