FAIRBANKS, Alaska — People who live in Fairbanks, Alaska, face a long, cold winter each year. The average daytime high temperature for the months of November, December, and January are 10 degrees, 4 degrees, and 0 degrees. Many residents rely on firewood to heat their homes, and now they can do it more efficiently thanks to Aurora Energy Solutions and SII Dry Kilns.
Aurora Energy Solutions recently began operating an SII firewood kiln to produce kiln-dried firewood — an investment that will help wood-burning homeowners save money and also help a community that is challenged by poor air quality.
Aurora Energy Solutions is a unit of Aurora Energy, which operates a coal-fired power plant in Fairbanks. Aurora Energy, part of the Usibelli family string of businesses in Alaska, including the Usibelli Coal Mine, is led by Rob Brown, president of Aurora Energy and Aurora Energy Solutions and also vice president of the coal mine business.
Aurora Energy Solutions was formed to acquire Superior Pellet Fuels last year. Superior Pellet Fuels was launched in 2010 to manufacture wood fuel pellets, and it added operations to manufacture compressed or artificial logs from wood material in 2013. With the acquisition, Aurora Energy Solutions also added operations to produce kiln-dried firewood.
Chad Schumacher previously served as general manager of Superior Pellet Fuels and has continued in that role for Aurora Energy Solutions. About 40 percent of the company’s revenues come from firewood sales and 40 percent, pellet sales. The remaining 20 percent are from sales of artificial logs made of compressed wood material. Chad estimated that in 2021, firewood sales will increase to 65 percent of revenues, and pellets will account for 20 percent and compressed logs, 15 percent.
Fairbanks is located in the interior, more than 350 miles north of Anchorage, which is on the coast near the Gulf of Alaska. It is the largest city in the interior region yet only has a population of about 31,000. The company’s operations are located at two sites in Fairbanks and one in North Pole, a town about 11 miles away.
At its 20-acre campus in North Pole is the 12,000-square-foot plant for manufacturing fuel pellets and compressed logs and also a 6,000-square-foot shop. Firewood production operations and the company’s new SII firewood kiln are located in an industrial area in downtown Fairbanks. The company also has a 10,000-square-foot office and warehouse in downtown Fairbanks where most firewood is distributed and which employs three people.
The North Pole plant has a capacity to produce 30,000 tons of fuel pellets and 3,000 tons of compressed logs annually. Currently, it produces about 2,500 tons of fuel pellets and 1,000 tons of compressed logs annually in accordance with demand. Although sales of fuel pellets have been steady, sales of compressed logs have grown significantly in the past 18-24 months, according to Chad. During the peak months of June-September, the plant operates around the clock and employs 12 people.
Production of firewood is done outdoors, but finished, kiln-dried firewood is stored under roof in a pole shed building. The company has a wood yard of about 3.5 acres and a Multitek 2025 firewood processor for cutting logs to firewood length and splitting the rounds. The firewood operations employ up to six people.
The firewood operations are new — the company added firewood sales this year — and will be conducted year-round. The company’s SII firewood kiln began operating the beginning of October and is expected to run nine months a year.
“When Chad and I first talked, he wanted to go with a diesel powered processor,” recalled Jason Hartmann, sales and marketing manager for Wisconsin-based Multitek. “I explained to him the benefits of an electric-powered processor, especially in the cold climate, and he was very receptive of this.”
Multitek offers fully electric powered firewood processors. They can be built on either a mobile frame or a stationary frame. The electric model for Aurora was built on a stationary frame.
“We set up their Multitek 2025XP with an extended live deck and an extended trough for the long wood they use,” said Jason. “Chad also decided to go with a Multitek tumbler to remove all the trash and debris for a cleaner product.”
Aurora’s Multitek firewood processor is equipped with a 48-inch circle saw; Multitek firewood processors with circle saws feature an integrated saw brake. The machine can process logs up to 22 inches in diameter and 60 feet long with the extended trough. Powered by an 80 hp electric motor, it can produce more than four cords per hour.
Multitek uses fully electric joystick controls with no hydraulics in the cab, which is an important safety factor, and Multitek offers the largest cab on a processor for operator comfort and to maximize production. The company improved its laser measuring device in 2020. All Multitek circle saw units come with an integrated saw brake.
(For more information about Multitek firewood processors, www.multitekinc.com.)
Sales of kiln-dried firewood began when the kiln began operating. Chad estimated the company will sell 1,000 cords this winter. “We’ll have no problem selling that,” he said. “We have orders for every stick of it.”
Fairbanks and North Pole have been plagued by poor air quality — notably during the coldest months of the year — because so many residents rely on burning wood to heat their homes or as a supplemental source of heat. In fact, the air pollution levels are among the worst in the U.S. A contributing factor is the fact that there is so little wind during the coldest months.
A stakeholder group concerned about air pollution was organized in 2017. Chad and Rob realized there was an opportunity to use excess steam from the Aurora Energy power plant to indirectly fire a kiln to dry firewood. Kiln-dried firewood burns much more efficiently than green or seasoned firewood and would reduce emissions when used by residents to heat their homes. In fact, in October 2021 the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation will implement new regulations requiring sales of firewood to be seasoned wood or mechanically dried.
“We collectively saw an opportunity where Superior Pellet Fuels had the expertise in the timber industry and could pair up with Aurora Energy, which had the capital and excess steam,” explained Chad. “We really had an interest in trying to address the air quality issues our community is facing.”
As the two companies began collaborating, “It just made sense for us to be under the same ‘house,’” recalled Chad, which led to the formation of Aurora Energy Solutions and its acquisition of Superior Pellet Fuels.
As they developed plans for the firewood business, Chad and Rob consulted with several suppliers of kilns. They traveled throughout the U.S. to look at kilns at six locations from various suppliers and eventually obtained pricing from several.
“Ultimately, we just kept coming back to SII,” said Chad. “They’re tried and true, proven in the industry.” Because of the extremely long and cold winters in Fairbanks, “that was our biggest concern. We wanted a kiln that was guaranteed to perform in cold weather and could meet our targeted cycle time, 48-72 hours.”
Chad and Rob took 18-24 months to research their project, noted Brian Turlington, vice president of sales for SII. “I think they did a really good job of doing their homework,” he said. The research included a visit to SII’s headquarters in North Carolina as well as several SII kilns.
There were multiple options available for heating the kiln, observed Brian. “They did a lot of due diligence and research on what made sense for them.”
The firewood kiln is heated with steam generated from the power plant. In order to minimize heat losses from traditional venting, SII provided a power vent system utilizing an ‘air to air’ heat exchanger. The system takes heat from the hot, wet air being exhausted and pre-heats the incoming make-up air, which can save up to 70 percent of the heat lost to venting in a traditional manner, saving steam and money.
Despite the extremely cold climate, the kiln did not require any special design or features.
“It performed admirably the first week,” reported Chad, and has continued to do so.
The SII firewood kiln dries 48 cords of wood in 48-72 hours. The firewood is loaded loose into wire baskets that can hold 200 cubic feet, which is about one cord, and the baskets are staged in the kiln with a forklift. The company purchased some baskets initially from SII and then turned to a local business to fabricate more.
The fact that the SII kiln uses the excess steam from the power plant for heat was critical. A direct-fired kiln, burning some type of fuel to heat water in a boiler, would have required an air quality permit. However, it is highly unlikely that state officials would issue a permit given the region’s air pollution problems.
SII firewood kilns have fully automated controls and can be monitored remotely via Internet connection. The kiln shuts down automatically when the drying cycle is completed. PLC and computer software are easy to use with spreadsheet reporting and charts.
SII can configure a firewood kiln to be heated with either gas, steam, or hot water; for gas-fired operation, SII uses modulating valves or burners for precise heat control to ensure consistent drying and maximize fuel.
SII sizes the kiln to achieve the shortest, most efficient cycle times. Components are aluminum and stainless steel for corrosion resistance and longevity.
The kilns can be used for multiple tasks, including drying or heat-treating firewood, lumber, or pallets.
SII Dry Kilns is a leader in kilns for drying and sterilizing firewood, lumber, and pallets, both hardwood and softwood. The company has more than 2,000 kilns operating globally.
(For more information about SII and its products, visit www.siidrykilns.com, email email@example.com, or call (800) 545-6379.)
The application for Aurora Energy Solutions certainly represented some challenges because of the location, noted Brian. Construction codes in Alaska are more stringent — as in California — because of the risk of earthquakes. Accordingly, construction of the kiln was “beefier” than normal, he explained. There were some other slight modifications to maximize heat and air flow.
It was a challenge to source a qualified contractor in the Fairbanks region to build the kiln, so SII flew a crew there to build it from start to finish. The components were shipped via truck (three truckloads), a trip of 7-10 days that took the drivers through a large stretch of western and northwest Canada. SII sent a start-up technician to provide training and help with the start-up process.
“It’s proven technology,” said Chad of the decision to choose SII. “Performance ready.” He and Rob were able to visit four SII firewood kilns before their buying decision. “All of them were performing very well,” noted Chad. “It was nice to see a kiln that was able to be turned on, monitored from a remote location, and know that it was going to perform exactly the way we expected it to.”
“It’s been exactly what we hoped for,” he added.
The COVID-19 pandemic actually opened up a window to have the kiln operating much sooner than expected. The lead time for SII had been reduced from six months to two months. “It expedited our manufacturing schedule when we realized we could get a kiln manufactured and installed” so quickly, said Chad. Initially they planned to have the foundation ready to construct the kiln in the spring of 2021. “Because of the expedited manufacturing, it allowed us to address market needs this year.”
Kiln-dried firewood, dried to a moisture content of under 20 percent, “absolutely” will help reduce emissions, said Chad. “It drastically improves the efficiency of burning wood in a stove or furnace.” The highest point of emissions of a wood stove is when the fire is starting, he noted. “When you’re dealing with dried wood, that start-up period can be reduced considerably, by 50 percent or more…You get to optimum burning efficiency much faster by using kiln-dried wood.”
After the start-up period, kiln-dried wood also burns more efficiently — hotter and cleaner. The reason is the reduced moisture content. When burning wood with a high moisture content, “It takes half of the energy just to dispose of the moisture,” explained Chad. Green wood burns longer, “but it’s not providing the energy you could get by using wood that has less moisture.”
It’s an issue that can even affect people who obtain their firewood months in advance and let it naturally dry or season for two reasons, noted Chad. One is that Alaskans have a very short window of time for the wood to season. The second reason is because the region can experience wet weather. In a wet year, firewood that people obtained in the spring is not considered dry according to the EPA standard of less than 20 percent moisture.
“The big thing we talk about here is the fact that we’re dealing with a product that is not only reducing emissions, but it’s also saving people money,” said Chad. That’s because since kiln-dried wood burns more efficiently, homeowners need less firewood.
Homeowners burning kiln-dried firewood will need about 40 percent less wood, according to Chad. Even though they will pay a premium for kiln-dried firewood, they will save 20-30 percent on their home heating budget, he estimated.
The company advertised its kiln-dried firewood, promoting the environmental and cost benefits, for about a week. Demand was so strong it no longer needed to advertise. After that first week the company had orders for a month in advance.
Finished, kiln-dried firewood leaves the yard quickly. “We can sell 100 percent of it in 24 hours,” said Chad.
A typical homeowner will use about five or six cords of firewood during the winter if it is their primary source of heat, according to Chad, although some will use as many as 10. For customers who burn firewood as a supplemental source of heat, they may use two or three cords for the winter. An average customer heating their home with fuel pellets uses about four to five tons for the winter.
The company offers delivery of firewood by the dump truck load and limited services for stacking the wood. Customers can also load their own vehicle. If they have a commercial truck, the company will load it by the cubic foot or cord. The pole shed for storing firewood has six bays for loading operations and customer pick up.
Fuel pellets are sold by the ton in bags of 40 or 50 pounds. Compressed logs are sold by the ton, 103 packages each containing five logs.
Chad secures timber sales from state forest lands and contracts with loggers to harvest the trees and stage the wood. In recent years the company has been sourcing logs from disaster-related timber harvests — forests that have suffered damage from wind, fire, or flood.
Firewood logs are low-grade material, truck-length, 45-50 feet, and average 8 inches in diameter. This year, the company is using 100 percent birch for firewood; spruce will be added next year. For fuel pellet manufacturing, the company uses 100 percent softwood — white spruce; the pellet plant uses low-grade logs down to a 4-inch top. High-grade saw logs are supplied to local sawmills.
The raw materials for making compressed logs are residuals from fuel pellet production and white spruce residuals from local sawmills. The company also uses hardwood material from land-clearing operations and residuals from its firewood operations.
The fuel pellet plant is equipped with a Morbark whole tree chipper with a flail debarker to produce paper quality chips, which later are reduced further by a hammer mill.
The plant and firewood operations are equipped with a number of pieces of equipment for handling logs, including a Bobcat Versahandler V519 with a log grapple attachment to feed the firewood processor, a Cat 320 log loader and a Doosan S225 log loader for handling wood in decks, and a Cat 950 front end loader for handling chips and sawdust.
Whatever residual materials from the company’s operations that are not used for making compressed logs are supplied to the power plant to be co-fired.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reached Alaska, too, observed Chad. “It’s affected everybody. There’s no question about it.” The pandemic has required adjustments to the labor pool, the need for additional support, and monitoring the health of employees.
One of the most significant impacts, he said, has been to drastically reduce the opportunity to travel in and out of Alaska via airlines. “Which has been good and bad.” The restrictions on travel have kept labor in the region. However, morale has suffered, according to Chad. Many Alaska residents plan a vacation out of the state during the long, cold, dark winter.
“I’m very concerned we will see a rise in mental health issues in Alaskans,” said Chad.
SII had to navigate those same travel restrictions for its employees who went to Fairbanks. “We followed the COVID protocols to make sure our people could get there and return safely,” noted Brian.
Alaskans normally are at higher risk of depression because of the long, dark winters, according to Chad. “We’re trying to do a much better job of keeping an eye on the operating crew, their physical and mental well-being,” said Chad.
“At a time when very little is happening across the country with regard to business investment and manufacturing growth, the Usibelli family of businesses has invested a tremendous amount in helping address air quality issues in the community and also creating jobs and new industry infrastructure.”