What do we do with all these chips? It’s a dilemma that’s faced generations of tree care professionals, and there still seems to be no magic solution. In the past, many companies sent their chips to the landfill, but that option is expensive and is being regulated out of existence in many parts of the country. Others have found a market in making mulch, but that usually requires a large facility for processing, not to mention additional equipment and the expense of finding customers and delivering that mulch. There are probably a thousand other uses that have been tried—filling in old pits and ravines, roadside stabilization, etc.—but usually those projects are fleeting, and sooner or later demand goes away and you’re back to square one.
More recently, a new market for wood chips has emerged: biomass energy. When oil costs soared a few years back, the biomass energy market went from steady growth to dramatic expansion. Today, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that wood and wood waste (such as chips) produce 2 percent of our country’s total energy needs; a figure that’s growing. With that boom has come a demand for biomass: wood chips and pellets, along with grass, sugarcane and just about any other form of cellulose that can be burned to produce energy. Seemingly, this market offers tremendous potential for those in the tree care business who spend much of their days making wood chips, but selling chips for biomass energy doesn’t always make sense.
“Chips can cost you money in a number of different ways, with the labor costs to haul chips away from the work site, the vehicle costs, the lost productivity,” says David Goodson, manager of vegetation management with Northeast Utilities in Connecticut. Goodson has experience dealing with wood chips, having worked with Lewis Tree Service in New York to develop a specialized vacuum (the Biomass Management System Chip Vac 3000) to make chip collection more efficient.
Even with a unit like this, he notes, the logistics of selling chips for biomass usually pose challenges. “One of the issues with wood chips as a usable wood fuel is the cost to collect and deliver,” he explains. “The typical small tree care company would need a way to collect the chips, a place to stockpile them, and then a large semitruck to bring them to the nearest biomass energy plant, which may be hundreds of miles away.”
Richard Roy, wood chip buyer with the Schiller Station power plant in Portsmouth, N.H., agrees that the logistics usually don’t work for a tree care company to sell their chips to a large biomass energy plant. “Typically, biomass plants deal with loggers as opposed to tree service people,” he explains.
It’s worth noting, however, that the loggers the plant works with aren’t just trying to get rid of a waste product, they’re producing chips specifically for sale, so they have a vested interest in making sure it perfectly matches what the biomass energy plant is looking for.
While a quality tree care chipper can meet the power plant’s 2-inch-minus spec for chips, it needs to be well maintained and calibrated to do so, he explains. Roy adds that it’s also common to see some chunk wood in loads of chips from tree care companies, which can cause havoc in the wood handling system at a biomass energy plant.
So, is there a biomass energy market for those in the tree care business? There are success stories out there. “Fortunately for us, we have a paper plant right here in town that takes all of our biomass and uses it for boiler fuel,” says Ted Foley with Foley’s Tree Service in Tomahawk, Wis. The Packaging Corporation of America (PCA) plant produces cardboard. The chips that Foley delivers aren’t the right type of wood for the mill to make paper or cardboard with, but they work perfectly in the boiler to produce steam to make the energy the plant uses.
Foley’s Tree Service uses a cab-over truck with a dump to deliver around 6 tons of chips each day. “At the end of every day, I just send one of the guys over there with the truck,” Foley explains. “We just get weighed when we come in and when we leave. We get paid by the ton, which covers the cost of sending an employee there and some of the fuel as well. It’s not like we’re making a huge profit on it, but at least chips aren’t an expense for us.”
Foley says that customers like hearing that 100 percent of the wood coming off their property is being recycled for a productive use. “It’s not just chips, they’ll take anything from us. They take logs that aren’t marketable as well,” says Foley. If Foley’s Tree Service has unmarketable logs that are too big for its chipper, it simply stockpiles them at its own yard until it has a full load of logs ready to be brought to the mill. “We just drop them off and they have big hog chippers that come in once a year and they’ll chip those for biomass as well.”
There are some requirements in order to deliver wood chips to the PCA mill. “We have to be licensed and insured, and there are requirements to wear safety and PPE when we’re at the mill,” says Foley. While the mill receives regular semi loads of chips, he says it is also quite happy to take the quantities he can supply. “For some reason, the people that work there tell me that they really like our chips, that they burn hotter than normal,” Foley adds.
The fact that he is getting paid for his chips by a local source make Foley the envy of his tree care colleagues in Wisconsin. “When I’m at state arborist association meetings, I hear others guys talking about what they have to go through to get rid of their chips, and when I tell them what I can do they’re all pretty amazed that I’m actually getting paid for them,” he says. “We’re just hoping the mill stays strong so they’ll remain in the area.”
While not every tree care company is lucky enough to have such a plant in their local service area, there may be an outlet in the form of a company that specializes in buying and selling chips. “There are a lot of people in the chip market. Right now they’re mainly in logging or working with loggers, but we’re seeing new people entering the market,” says Mark Rau, dealer support director with Morbark, Inc.
Rau says the biomass chip market is still developing, and it’s tough to predict what shape it will take. He says that having a central site where many different tree care companies could dump chips, operated either by a third party or as a cooperative effort, makes a lot of sense in terms of purchasing the necessary equipment and being able to meet demand. “I wonder if that’s where things might be heading as biomass energy develops,” he says. Partnering with a specialty chip producer is another option that could help tree care companies get rid of their chips while possibly making a little money in the process.
Morbark’s founder, Norval Morey, was promoting the use of wood for energy back in the 1970s, says Rau, pointing out that while low petroleum prices have slowed the development of that market, biomass energy seems to be here for good now. “It’s not just burning chips. There are a lot of places around the country using wood chips for ethanol production, and they’re looking for suppliers,” he explains.
Rau says Morbark is continually developing equipment to meet the changing needs of the chip market: “Small producers might be only producing a couple of chip van loads a day, so it doesn’t make sense for them to invest in a $300,000 chipper. So we’re seeing a need for equipment in the $100,000 to $200,000 range that will still hold up and meet production.”
While the standards for biomass energy chips might not be as high as those for wood pellets, “the chips still have to pass through the plant’s material handling systems, so they do have to be chipped at least to a dimension their systems can handle,” explains Rau. Most quality tow-behind chippers marketed to the tree care industry can, with proper maintenance, meet those standards, he says, “But, you can’t let too much dirt enter the pile of chips. Putting dirt and sand into the burning system makes a mess and requires extra maintenance on the buyer’s part, so it’s important to keep the chips clean. So, you want to have a good dump site where you’re not scooping up too much dirt with the chips.”
Providing wood chip fuel for boiler use is perhaps the most logical market for tree care companies. In addition to paper and other manufacturing plants, wood chip boilers are being installed in more and more schools, college and large public facilities. Each of these needs a steady supply of wood chips in order to keep the boiler running.
In the West, a Fuel for Schools program was created to help supply schools with wood chips. Tom Coston, who helps coordinate the program for Montana, says there are about 10 schools operating wood chip boilers in that state. “They’re fairly small boilers; the biggest one uses about 3,000 tons of wood chips a year, and the smallest uses less than 500 tons per year,” he explains. That scale makes it more feasible for a tree contractor to be able to supply a meaningful portion of the overall wood chip demand.
In all cases, the chips need to be of good quality and the right size. “Smaller boilers can be more sensitive than larger boilers, because they typically have a fixed grate rather than a moving grate, so someone has to manually clean off any dirt and rocks before it is clogged,” Coston says.
The biomass energy market is still developing, and there may be new applications that will seek out the individually small, but collectively large, quantities of wood chips that the tree care industry produces every day. While logistics, such as finances and chip quality, still would need to be factored in, perhaps co-ops or specialized chip supply companies will be formed to collect chips from a variety of sources and then deliver in bulk to a buyer. As traditional fuel supplies rise in cost or shrink in supply, the economics of collecting and delivering even smaller quantities of wood chips may begin to make more sense.