State of Pellets

Industry Is Catching Fire


Initially conceived as a biofuel venture, one of central Oregon’s newest wood fuel pellet mills has developed into a solid consumer pellet producer serving Pacific Northwest markets with a high quality Douglas fir product. The 40,000 ton annual production plant started up in early 2010.

Pacific Pellet President Mark Stapleton and CEO Jeff Raines were initially researching biofuel production, specifically butanol, back in 2008. During the course of due diligence, they found that the biofuel plant would need a densified, wood pellet as a base, reliable feedstock. In order to control pricing, quality and to ensure availability, it was decided to manufacture the product themselves.

Even more importantly, as the two continued to research the biofuel idea, “We found out that unless you have a lengthy list of federal grants, it can be very expensive to try and be the next ‘smartest guy’ out there with a new energy source,” Stapleton says.

In addition, the limited nature of the biofuel market and its lack of commercial production compared to the pellet market became obvious, and the central Oregon venture soon became a pellet plant. By 2009 the two were working with HD Engineering on plant layout and design, and visiting other plants for ideas. Swaggart Bros. Inc from Hermiston, Ore. was hired as the general contractor for the construction project.


In late 2009 Pacific Pellet started taking delivery on equipment, and construction began in early 2010. The mill operates with a mix of new and used machinery. Rich Evans, who had worked in central Oregon with a variety of primary and secondary forest products manufacturers and knew the area’s mill residual market well, was hired as plant superintendent.

“There were a lot of challenges with the various pieces of equipment and integrating the new and used equipment,” Evans says. “It was definitely not a rubber-stamp plant project.”

Another challenge was the learning curve: Though Stapleton is highly complimentary of the Central Oregon workforce, the new employees had no pellet mill experience, requiring more than a few months to get the plant operating efficiently after startup. Developing the plant’s control system was critical to integrating the new and used equipment and a smooth startup. Pacific Pellet officials turned to Concept Systems of Albany, Ore. to design a system that would automate the entire production line while providing performance monitoring for each step in the process.

The system features PanelView Plus HMI screens on the mill floor and upstairs at the pellet mill station that allow real-time observation of operations at every machine center and related components and provide process summaries, alarm data and other feedback.

Capabilities include startup and shutdown sequences optimized to reduce power demand and enhance safety; conveyor speed sensors that constantly adjust production speed based on any number of factors; continual cyclone and bagging system monitoring with complete integration of the plant’s PyroGuard spark detection and fire suppression system from Clarke’s Sheet Metal, and a safety-enhancing emergency shutdown process. The control system aided plant startup and the overall manufacturing process as well as troubleshooting and maintenance and additional improvements, Evans says. “It’s a work in progress,” he adds. “We’re always looking for ways to improve the system, and as we have more experience working with it, we find more things we can tweak.”

Evans notes that though Concept Systems is only a three-hour drive away, an on-line connection to the plant’s control system allows Concept to monitor the system as well and work with the plant in making any modifications or improvements. “They have been very customer oriented in solving the problems and providing alternatives and cost-effective solutions,” Evans says.



Raw material mill residuals in the form of planer shavings, sawdust or chips are the primary wood feedstock sources. Incoming loads are weighed at their respective source mills and unloaded with a Peerless truck dump at a central location in the raw material storage area. Every load is sampled for moisture content.

“We require our suppliers to isolate species and don’t accept any blended material,” Evans says of the plant’s feedstock, adding that the primary fuel pellet product is made from 100% Douglas fir. However, the company offers several other fuel pellet products based on a combination of other wood feedstock products, including juniper and pine. Raw material is sorted by species and type in separate storage areas.

Sawdust and shavings are blended at the new West Salem Machinery infeed hopper feeding a new West Salem shredder. Output from the shredder flows to a surge bin feeding the dryer. A quad pass system, the AGI rotary dryer (21 million BTU Ponder burner system) was bought used and is natural gas-fired. The dryer features a warm air recycling system that reduces natural gas usage.

From the dryer, material flows through a new Western Pneumatics high efficiency cyclone, then on to a new West Salem Machinery shaker screen system that removes oversize dry material and diverts it to a new West Salem hammermill. Right-size material and hammermilled material converges and flows to an Agra surge bin that feeds to the pellet mills. Most of the conveying systems and related components were supplied by Martin Conveyor and Motion Industries. Magnets installed throughout the system protect the machinery.

The plant’s two used CPM pellet machines operate in tandem, with pellets dropping onto a live conveyor that feeds to a pellet cooler. From the cooler, pellets flow to a final pellet storage bin after passing across a new West Salem Machinery shaker screening system that recycles fines back into the process.

Pellets are fed from the storage to a new automated Premier Tech weighing and bagging line followed by a new robotic stacking station.

The bagging line precedes the most recent addition to the plant: a used Wulftec stretch wrap machine, installed early 2013, that has reduced labor costs while adding to product quality and protection during shipment.

The location of the mill in central Oregon, west of the Cascade Mountains, offers a marketing advantage in eastern Washington and Oregon, as well as northern California, Nevada and Idaho. Oregon and Washington much of the population and market volume is west of the Cascade Mountains along the I-5 corridor and the company sells a good amount of product there, but Pacific Pellet has a better market share east of the mountains, Stapleton says.

Pacific Pellet has commercial accounts with the Sisters School District and Deschutes National Forest headquarters, and Stapleton says that other commercial operations are being pursued.

“The challenge in Oregon for all pellet manufacturers is procuring and solidifying feedstock at a viable cost,” Stapleton says, citing frustration with government and public lands managers and their efforts to make more raw materials available through projects to restore forest health through thinning or salvage damaged timber after a wildfire. Doing so would boost utilization, make more fiber available through in-woods and mill residuals and encourage companies such as Pacific Pellet and others to invest more and develop a regional sustainable energy infrastructure, he says.

Going forward, Stapleton says Pacific Pellet will continue to produce the same high quality consumer products, but will also work to develop new products and markets while looking to utilize a variety of raw materials available in the region.