>> BY Peter Worden
You know Mount Mackenzie, Macpherson, Begbie, Revelstoke and so on. But there is another local hill you may not be aware of in Revelstoke.
“This is Mount Hog,” says Angus Woodman, Downie sawmill co-manager and guy with a very appropriate last name, as we scale a bulldozed path to the summit of the mill’s bark pile. The massive, ever-growing pile of byproduct bark or ‘hog’—cedar, mostly—smack in the middle of the yard is so big it can be seen from space. Well maybe not. I don’t know. Far, anyway. And all day and all night, the mill spits out tonnes more into its already 50,000 metric tonne heap.
At the top is one of the best lookouts in town. You get a 360-degree view of the mill and log yard and I can see my house. “You ever come here to think?” I ask Angus. “Yup,” he says wistfully with a chuckle, “to just get away from it all.” What Angus would probably really like to get away from is this gunky, gross growing pile of rotting bark. He, like many sawmill managers, have little use for it. “You can see why anything you try to do with it is fraught with problems—it’s so damn stringy.”
ABOVE: All the mill’s wood residuals—sawdust, shavings, chips and bark—are sorted and sent to respective piles through a cool system of vacuums, conveyor belts, sifters and tubes in the ceiling. Angus compares the stringy, gummy hog with clumpy sawdust and light, fluffy shavings. RCEC can burn shavings and sawdust, but not hog.
Cedar is valuable. This no-brainer hit me last summer working with a crew tree-banding. Basically, to prevent cedars from splitting into a bunch of pieces as they’re felled, crews sometimes ratchet heavy nylon straps around the base of the trunk, presumably saving logging companies thousands of dollars.
Cedar is valuable. ABOVE: Logging crews sometimes band the trees so they don’t split when they’re felled. BELOW: At sawmill in-feed, a sawyer uses a special laser-guided optimizer to make the best cut and optimize the wood into lumber. The mill always tries to make the best cuts to minimize waste, but sawdust (from the saws), shavings (from the planer mill) and hog (from the debarker) are an inevitable by-product of the Downie mill and mills everywhere.
It’s the same mentality at the mill. If you’re a regular reader of Reved, our last visit showed very, very expensive laser-guided machinery optimizing each cut at the sawmill in-feed and in the planer mill. Downie—and it’s safe to say mills in general—is efficiency obsessed. Managers are constantly working to perfect and optimize cuts and procedures. Most of the mill’s product is western red cedar and as cedar bark grows it picks up dirt and silica, so as it burns it clinkers into chunky, caked on lava. It’s a mess. The bark is also too stringy. It doesn’t compress, it’s like a sponge. Mount Hog is a byproduct that currently serves no purpose, has no value, takes up valuable real estate and is therefore a glaring inefficiency staring workers dead in the face. “It’s also a major fire hazard next to our mill,” adds Angus, “It’s front and centre to us.”
WHAT’S A TRUCK-LOAD OF HOG GO FOR THESE DAYS?
ANSWER: JUST COME GET IT.
Chips, sawdust and shavings, the mill sells. Chips have the highest value. Sawdust and shavings have some value. Hog or hogfuel has essentially no value. Pull a super-B tractor-trailer up to Mt. Hog right now and fill it for free.
All hog presently does at the mill is sit there anaerobically breaking down and threatening to catch fire. It is wood residuals manager, the unfortunately nicknamed “Dirty” Doug Hill’s job to ensure it doesn’t. He has also moved some of it beside the highway in Malakwa, where it is hoped it will be shipped to cogeneration or ‘co-gen’ plant. Some day. “We’re not making any money off of hog but we’re getting rid of it, which is key,” says Angus.
The mill used to burn its hog in a beehive burner. But that was dangerous and made problems of its own. So, about 10 years ago, the fast-acting, forward-thinking City Council, namely Mayor Geoff Battersby, sparked the way-ahead-of-its-time Revelstoke Community Energy Corporation—the first biomass district heating system in all of western Canada. It installed a system to make steam for the mill’s kilns to dry lumber. The excess heat is then piped through a labyrinthine district heating system underneath Revelstoke. It was designed to burn hog but hog didn’t burn that well, so now the giant cinderblocked backend port is fed a mix of other wood residuals—sawdust, shavings and chips.
THE BAJILLION-DOLLAR QUESTION
My recent obsession with hog—mainly, what to do with it—began at the 2017 BC Tech Conference in Vancouver, where one chemical engineer I asked about hog described it as a rabbit hole and said something to the effect of how I could be a bajillionaire if I invented a solution.
As I discovered, it’s many peoples’ obsession. Turning wood waste into biofuel, biocoal and biogas is a global race. Some of the best work is being done in Germany, Holland and Sweden where energy costs are high. In Canada, a lot of talk with the big players such as Canfor, Tolko, and West Fraser is where gains are to be made; it isn’t in producing more lumber. It’s how to get more value from residuals.
Cornelius Suchy is one such hog-obsessed Revelstokian. “The idea that you’re going to make oodles of money with it, I’m not convinced,” he begins by telling me. He has worked in renewable energy and biomass energy for the past 14 years, beginning with an interest in solar energy. Solar, of course, isn’t a great option in Revelstoke. “But wood is in a sense stored solar energy,” he said, explaining how when he came to Canada he saw beehive burners and mills everywhere using propane to heat their kilns to dry wood, while at the same time burning their own wood waste. It was crazy to him. Sometimes British Columbia can’t see the forest for the trees it cuts down. “There’s no waste in nature, only under utilized resources,” Suchy affirms.
100-MILE FUEL DIET
Revelstoke on the whole spends about $25 million dollars a year in energy, a number Suchy calculates from a recent community emission inventory. About half of that is in electricity and heating fuel. “We have hydro, of course, but we also have a lot of wood. We talk about the 100-mile diet … why don’t we extend it to energy? Why not try to get all our energy requirements within 100 miles?” he asks, but then answers his own question: “Here [in Canada] we have oil and gas coming out our ying-yang.”
One of the possible ideas for utilizing hog and mill residuals is not exactly burning it but gasifying it, explains Cornelius. It involves first drying and chipping the hog, then heating it to between 300 and 500 degrees centigrade, then sucking all the oxygen out so the bark smolders. Then it can be turned into long-chain hydrocarbons.
That gas, something called DME—dimethyl ether—could theoretically be fed straight into propane pipes as a drop-in fuel. It can be blended up to 20 per cent with ordinary propane without changing nozzles or furnaces or anything, the way ethanol is commonly blended into fuels. “These days need to come to an end. We can no longer subsidize pollution,” he says.
ENTER: THE CHOPSTICK GUY
At a recent industry event, Angus accidentally met “the chopstick guy” named Felix Böck. Böck is a doctoral student at UBC’s Faculty of Forestry. His brainchild, ChopValue, is a Vancouver startup that upcycles hundreds of thousands of throwaway chopsticks and turns them into beautiful and practical home décor. It is an elegant solution to an inelegant reality of wood waste. Böck was never looking at cedar bark in particular, but as he learned more about wood resources in the urban environment, it brought him to the much broader problem of mill residuals.
Felix Böck, who founded Chop Value, makes home décor out of used chopsticks.
“On the West Coast we’re in a very unique position. I used to call it a problem. No one anywhere in the world really understands it. We have too much of one resource to worry about waste wood.”
In other words, mills can access wood fiber in the forest easier, and North Americans have enough cheap energy, for either to have to worry about getting creative with wood waste.
“The truth is many companies pay up to $1,000 per month just to get rid of their woodchips. That’s an unbelievable problem to get rid of a resource because you can’t handle it now.”
Felix explained in a nutshell how the moisture content of cedar bark allows it to be pressed “under very, very high pressure” into high-density fiber boards without the need for a binding resin like other woods.
“At the end of the day, I don’t think technology is the issue,” he said. For Felix, there aren’t enough hours in the day to devote to all the wood waste problems of the world. His modest beginning of collecting old chopsticks is now a thriving business of eight people and cash flow.” “It’s kind of sad at the same time. The problem of wood residuals and cedar bark is much bigger.”
WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS NOW IS HOG, SWEET HOG.
Back at the mill, I throw a few crazy what-ifs Angus’ way. What if we made a hog-themed amusement park? He goes along with the idea for a second, suggesting we put caves atop Mount Hog. We could open a Downie sawmill daycare. It would be warm enough, he says. What if I could live up here? My hydro bill was the highest it has ever been—why not burn hog for free? Angus says he heard about a local guy who has his own boiler and was taking limited amounts of hog fuel from Kovaks and burning it at his house. Someone else in town dyes and bags it for landscaping cedar mulch. But those aren’t big markets. One idea, says Angus, is sending the hog to Minneapolis by train, which is apparently the hog hub in the U.S.
If Mt. Hog simply appeared tomorrow in sub-Saharan Africa, people there would surely find some use for it. They’d cook with it or build roads or make homes. In Ontario they’d probably call it a ski hill. But necessity being the mother of invention, there’s no need here for it. Right now just getting rid of hog is the solution.
BUILD VS. BURN
The Natives who first harvested cedar used every part of the tree. They built canoes and homes with the wood, and the bark was used to make hats and clothing. Cornelius floats the idea of wood-wool cement board, a spaghetti-type of inlay in cement siding used for sound absorption. Such products are already in use on the highway from Vancouver into Surrey. Cement is reinforced with the stringy bark, provided that the mill’s debarker doesn’t mangle it. “You would need to change that system,” says Cornelius. “You have to basically mimic what the Natives did.”
The mill, of course, is in the lumber business, not the energy or construction or agriculture or textile or humanitarian industries. But it does produce residuals, and as Angus knows: “It’s coming to a head here where sites are going to have to deal with their residuals because they can’t rely on others.” Mount Hog can only go so high and it could result some day in the mill temporarily shutting down. “At some point government is going to have to show some leadership or give us some ideas where to go. It’s a real challenge.” It’s likely there isn’t going to be one big silver-bullet solution to the hog problem but perhaps several smaller ones. “We’re not discouraged by it,” he says. “It does have a use. It’s just figuring out what it is.”