It’s hard to think about winter during these late-summer days, but preparations for another heating season are already underway at Froling Energy.
For the last six years, my company has been successfully installing wood pellet boilers in residential, commercial and industrial buildings. This year we decided to add a new division to the company: making and delivering a new kind of biomass fuel that will reduce heating costs for our larger commercial customers.
During the last 30 years, Europeans have had much higher energy costs than Americans and, as a result, manufacturers there have led the way in high-efficiency wood combustion technology. This has led to innovations that have steadily decreased costs, increased burn efficiencies and, at the same time, diminished emissions. I always say that Europeans hate to burn water. They know how badly burning wet, green wood affects the environment. Clean burning European boiler systems are now gaining traction in the U.S. market, particularly for large-scale commercial and industrial applications.
New England is the perfect region for making use of wood fuel: trees are plentiful; the logging industry is mature; sustainable harvesting is common practice, and conventional heating costs are high. These factors have contributed to a rich history of heating with wood, including the more recent addition of high-efficient wood pellet central heating systems. The Monadnock Region, in particular, happens to be home to one of the oldest and largest wood pellet producers in the United States: New England Wood Pellet in Jaffrey. The company is the second oldest wood pellet manufacturer in the United States, and the largest in the Northeast.
The presence of a local fuel producer was a vital component of the required infrastructure when I established Froling Energy in Peterborough seven years ago. In the energy industry, equipment, expertise and fuel availability are all equally important. In the case of wood heating, every pellet boiler sale and professional installation is completely dependent on having a steady, reliable supply of pellets. So, having a reputable supplier like New England Wood Pellet nearby allowed us to begin to develop a solid client base within a 100-mile radius that could securely make the switch to wood pellet boilers.
With those early success stories, it wasn’t long before we began fielding inquiries about much larger biomass heating systems to accommodate big school facilities as well as commercial, municipal and industrial buildings. Soon most of our revenue was coming from installing larger and more complex pellet boiler systems.
When the owners of these bigger boilers began asking for a fuel that was less costly than wood pellets, we had an idea. We knew that these boilers could also burn precision dry wood chips, but we had no experience with them whatsoever.
Regardless, I went ahead and said, “Sure, of course we can get those for you,” and we signed a contract to supply hundreds of tons of precision dry chips for a great price to a very happy customer. I figured with a little investigation, we would surely be able to find a local producer and be able to order an unlimited supply of dry chips.
But after conversations with wood product producers throughout the Northeast, I found that the precision dry chips required for these boilers simply did not exist here. Our local market has a steady supply of green chips, pulp chips and playground chips (grindings) but none of those would work in our boilers due to moisture content, chip size and consistency.
Because of this dead end, I did further investigation and decided we would make Precision Dry Chips (PDCs) ourselves. Our team had experience building large industrial wood pellet plants with automated production lines, so I figured I’d certainly be able to find an easy way to make a few hundred tons of perfect dry wood chips. However, this would prove to be much more difficult than expected. Besides assembling all the necessary equipment for the production line (no small task), we also needed to find a large piece of commercial property that offered the space and facilities to handle the production, storage, and ease of transport.
Despite the challenges, I’m happy to say that the whole Froling Energy team is settling into its new facilities in north Peterborough on Route 202. Given that it used to be a garbage transfer station, the space works surprisingly well. I like to think of it a place for “upcycling at its finest.” We have extensive space for storage, easy off-loading and filling of trucks, an office, a large garage and room to grow.
Our site even has a scale for weighing trucks—but when the first truck full of Froling Energy PDCs drove up on the 30-year-old scale it collapsed and was ruined. A new scale is arriving soon and a new dryer furnace is being installed next week.
Although no one wants to think about heating in September, I am happy to report that another locally produced renewable fuel will soon be available to help reduce heating costs and improve sustainability in the Northeast.
* Originally published in the September 2014 issue of Business Monadnock.