October/November, 2001

 

 

 

 

The Turbines of Terra Bella

Glenn Duysen's hard work and flexibility create a Bio-Tech Triumph

By Kurt Glaeseman

In 1966 Glenn Duysen had no idea that his Terra Bella mill out of Porterville, California, would be selling electricity by the turn of the century. At that time Sierra Forest Products was just an office trailer and a sawmill still under construction. The target area was in and around the Sequoia National Forest. Although there wasn't a big market for white fir, the prices for pine were strong, and in the 1960s, the Forest Service could allow a hundred million board foot of lumber to be harvested in the Sequoia National Forest. 

Only about 60 million was actually taken, and Duysen realized there was a good business potential for the remainder. That "remainder" grew even more attractive. With the creation of the Golden Trout Wilderness, the competing Johnsondale mill, owned by American Forest Products, suddenly had their log supply crimped. 

General Manager Kent Duysen at the log debarker.

Duysen bought the mill and decided to shut it down: It was not on a railhead, and he did not like the idea that all by-product had to be burned. Excess logs shifted to the Terra Bella plant, which kept very busy with two shifts and 240 employees. In the meantime Glenn Duysen moved his family down to Porterville. Older son Larry joined the Coast Guard, and second son Kent finished high school. Both Larry and Kent would follow in their dad's academic footsteps: All three have degrees in Forestry from Oregon State, and now the three work together at Sierra Forest Products. 

Glenn was always interested in sawmill by-products and the possibility for on-site production of electrical power. During the Jimmy Carter years, the price of gas shot up. Pulp chips had already been vulnerable to a weak Japanese market; the price was down, but the freight from Terra Bella to the Sacramento port was high. The Duysens saw some real advantages if they could establish a biomass cogeneration plant at their own mill. Under Carter's urging that Americans no longer be so dependent on fossil fuels, the Feds mandated that if a private cogen plant produced more electricity than it needed, the utilities companies had to buy the excess electricity at fair market price. 

All by-products (chips, bark, sawdust) have a use.

The Duysens signed a 30-year contract with Southern California Edison to buy their electricity and another contract with Wellons to help them install a wood-burning boiler and turbinegenerator. Using a refurbished turbine from the East Coast, the Duysens had the plant on line and producing electricity by March of 1986. Although it took seven years to get all the wrinkles out, the process was efficient and worked consistently except for scheduled maintenance outages. 

But the price of gas dropped, and so did the price that Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas and Electric were willing to pay small producers. Natural gas was downright cheap, and Edison didn't think they needed the extra electricity. Faced with producing power at a deficit, the Duysens regretfully shut down their biomass cogeneration operation in 1995. Kent Duysen remembers those days: "We had been able to extract steam to divert to the dry kilns for drying lumber. After the cogen shut down, we installed a portable gas boiler to make steam, but by the year 2000 gas prices went up. Our monthly gas bills suddenly soared. 

LeTourneau log stacker in for scheduled maintenance.

We needed to restart the cogen and burn our own residue. If we needed steam, we might as well produce power." The Duysens used the same basic equipment, but since it had sat idle for six years, a Westinghouse crew had to check things over. It cost about a million dollars, but the Terra Bella mill started producing steam again in January of 2001 and electricity two months later. No longer under contract with Edison Electric, the Duysens can now sell their excess power through an electricity broker via ISO (Independent Systems Operators). "Our own needs," says Kent, "are a little variable. 

We need only about 11 percent of the electricity we generate, but during our eight-hour shift, we actually use about 38 percent. We're selling it now one day ahead, and the demand is there. We're thinking ahead to summer; maybe our extra power can help avoid some of those rolling black-outs." The Sierra Forest Products (Terra Bella) mill has never used landfill or burning to get rid of waste. The Duysens always insisted on finding a use for by-products, although Kent admits that they did at one time have trouble finding a home for what he calls Terra Bella's "Mount Sawdust." (The sawdust is now purchased by dairies and by nurseries that use it for planting and mixes.) All by-products are now a very valuable aspect of the mill's profit margin. "Every last oink of the log is used for some purpose," says Kent. 

Logs are debarked at the mill. The bark is transported to a screener for size sorting. Bigger pieces are channeled through a hammermill and then a second screening. About a dozen gradations are monitored: super fine for golf course greens ("Turf & Tee"), a bit larger for humous and potting soil, and on up to decorative bark and the larger Walk-On- Bark. There's even a specialty bark, mostly from white fir with no cambium, for transplanting orchids in Santa Barbara. The Duysens encourage the development of this bark market and intend to stay on the upper quality end. 

About 30 percent is bagged on site into two-three cubic foot bags. They will bag for other people, and encourage them to bring their own bags. The rest goes out in bulk bins by truck or train. Curiously enough, this new market has diverted an obvious source of fuel away from the cogeneration system. "Sawdust and bark have too great a value for us to burn," says Kent. "That means we need to bring in 20 loads a day to fully fuel our boiler." Where does this additional biomass come from? With more stringent agricultural waste burning restrictions, orchard residue (almond, apricot, prune, walnut and citrus) is brought to the Terra Bella mill. 

The 52-bin sorter eliminates need for green chain.

They also get ten loads a day of construction wood waste from the Los Angeles area. This might include ends of 2x4s, pallets, lumber from demolished houses, cabinet shop scraps and green waste. Metal is a problem: a sensitive set of metal detectors at the infeed system sorts out anything with nails, bands, hinges, or metallic junk. The mill cannot accept wood products that have been creosoted, painted or plastic coated. Kent is still a little rueful about the Los Angeles garbage: "I never thought I'd spend one day a month tramping through the dumps of LA. I kept asking what I was doing there. But I had to analyze and see what was out there, what we could use to make things happen for us." It's the modern search for usable biomass. 

He speaks highly of the ten-year-old California Biomass Association, which has always considered the process of thinning a forest as a great social benefit. But there is more out there than just forest thinnings. The search for alternative biomass was accelerated when the Giant Sequoia Monument was officially established in April of 2000. Suddenly thousands of acres of forest were off limits--for logs and the resulting biomass needed for cogeneration. It was a shocking blow for the Duysens. For ten years a Sequoia Monument bill, introduced by Congressman Brown of San Bernardino, had floated around but died in committee. Local legislators did not feel it was backed by good scientific research and failed to take it seriously. Brown kept reintroducing the bill, and President Clinton arranged some private discussions. Suddenly it was a done deal. 

All of the Duysens worked hard to get city, county, and California Assembly resolutions to halt this method of land allocation. They were too late. Although he knows he has a vested interest, he is adamant in his disapproval of the process: "The people weren't involved. The process was done without public participation or dialogue." Neither the Duysens nor the local elected officials were asked what they thought or invited to the recognition ceremonies on April 15. Kent muses, "Clinton came in with nine helicopters, spent 45 minutes of his time, and then was off to LA for a Democratic fund-raising function. But it was our lives that were changed. 

We had employees who had worked faithfully with us for years. We had to tell them it was over, their jobs were gone. I don't care if it is a Republican or a Democrat move, there is something wrong with the Antiquities Act if it has that much power. I'm not questioning whether or not the President can use the Antiquities Act, but I do question the limits of its scope and effect." With 330,000 acres of forest unavailable, the Duysens knew there had to be cutbacks. They had been operating an auxiliary mill in Dinuba and trying desperately to keep it and the Terra Bella mill going. Each was cut back to a single shift, but the Sequoia Monument fallout dictated harsh terms: The Dinuba mill had to be shut down. 

The last year has been a bumpy one for the Duysens-telling employees they no longer had a job, selling the Dinuba sawmill, getting the Terra Bella cogen system up and running again. Kent feels the Sierra Forest Products operation has now stabilized at this most southern sawmill in California. There are currently 110 employees working the single shift in Terra Bella. The operation hours are roughly from 5 AM to 1:30 PM, but in the summer, due to California's interruptible electric program, the shift may start as early as 3:45 AM. But as Kent points out, the Duysens are confident that if they remain adaptable, they'll survive. And that extra electrical power generated by the turbines of Terra Bella just might keep some community or dairy or hospital or mall safe from the threat of the rolling blackouts.

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