Forever Fuels is part of the Summerleaze group of companies.
The Energy Crops Company
The origins of Forever Fuels lie in the establishment of the Energy Crops Company (ECC) by Graham Hilton and John Young in Cobham, Surrey in 2004. Part of Graham and John's vision for ECC was to take a leading role in the infant wood-pellet heating market. They established the initial infrastructure and relationships for such a business, and did much to promote the industry to the public and particularly to government.
But it was never going to be a quick or easy task to get the British Establishment to notice that electricity is only a fifth of our energy consumption. In the absence of any sensible and substantial policy measures to reward green heat for its carbon- and security-contribution in a manner equivalent to the support for renewable electricity, and indeed in the face of active measures to hold down the cost of domestic heating (whilst simultaneously driving up the costs of transport and electricity), the green-heating sector was bound to develop slowly.
By 2007, Graham and John needed more financial support to continue to develop the sector, and turned to Summerleaze for that help. In October 2007, Summerleaze and ECC formed Forever Fuels as a joint venture to take forward ECC's work in this area. Graham and John continued to manage Forever Fuels' activities.
It became clear in summer 2008 that further investment was required to support the business's activities in the infant market and to develop its infrastructure to be able to supply some of the most promising regions more efficiently. Graham and John sold their share of FF to Summerleaze to enable Summerleaze to make this investment.
Summerleaze took control of the management of the company, and moved FF's head office to Summerleaze's base in Maidenhead. Peter's son Bruno (formerly MD of RE-Gen) took over as MD.
With Summerleaze's backing, Forever Fuels launched an investment programme to bring local wood pellet deliveries to most parts of the UK. New quality control measures were introduced, and the team was enhanced to provide the operational management and service that were required to create the first professional wood pellet supply company in the UK.
From Summerleaze's earlier renewable-energy investments, we had learnt that it was better to buy specialist equipment from countries where technology was well-established, than to try to adapt secondhand British equipment to a purpose for which it was neither designed nor suited. We applied this lesson to Forever Fuels, in a number of ways that make us unique in the industry.
Austria, Sweden and Germany had particularly well-developed pellet heating markets. In all of them, pressurised tankers were the standard way of delivering wood pellets to end-users. Tipper-blowers were almost unknown, because of their detrimental impact on the delivered product. We therefore decided to use pressurised tankers built by the leading German manufacturer (Feldbinder) to deliver our wood pellets.
Our first tanker arrived in 2008. It has been followed by 31 more, so that we have a fleet of pressurised tankers in most regions of the country. We offer 4-wheeler, 6-wheeler and 8-wheeler tankers to suit customers of all sizes and accessibility.
There are barely ten other pressurised tankers for wood pellet deliveries in the country. We have around two-thirds to three-quarters of all these specialist vehicles in the UK. Other wood pellet suppliers decided to save a little money by using secondhand tipper-blowers from the agriculture sector, sacrificing the quality and many other advantages of pressurised tankers for an illusory cost-benefit (because the cost to the customer of poor quality fuel is ultimately higher than the marginal cost of the proper technology for a better delivery).
For the largest customers, for whom price is more important than quality-perfection, we also operate bulker-blowers for the largest, cheapest deliveries from the import stores (where the wood pellets are cheapest).
If you spend money on the best delivery vehicles and train the best drivers, you want them to spend their time delivering, not driving across the country. And if you install a wood pellet boiler, you probably care about the environment and your carbon emissions, and would prefer that as little diesel as possible is burnt getting the fuel to you.
Our second unique feature was therefore a series of regional depots, so that the wood pellets could be hauled as efficiently as possible to the local area. Small, expensive pellet delivery trucks have higher emissions and costs per tonne-mile. By reducing the distance that these trucks travel to our customers, we utilise them better, which minimises their cost and their emissions. It also means we have more chance of being responsive if a cold snap produces a surge of demand - it's pretty hard to get an extra run in if you have to travel 100 miles to collect the load.
The best efficiencies (cost and environmental) are achieved delivering direct from factories or import locations, for customers in their local area. We run trucks from several of these, and developed our own, as the market expanded. By 2016, we were collecting from five British pellet factories and eight import stores. But large parts of the UK were near neither a factory nor an import store, and for these, we opened regional depots to achieve the best efficiencies possible.
We opened our first depots in Maidenhead and Retford in 2007. These were followed by our first bespoke unit in Okehampton in 2010. A refined design was deployed in Middlewich (Cheshire) in 2012, followed by similar plants in Newmarket (Suffolk), Fishburn (Durham), and East Kilbride (Glasgow). As of 2016, a further depot is still pending for Capel Hendre in Carmarthenshire.
The depots incorporate many features to maximise our quality and operational efficiency.
- They have screens with 5mm mesh to remove smallish particles permitted by the standards but unwanted by customers.
- They have magnets to remove any ferric metals that get into the supply chain.
- They have sampling systems to take the samples from the flow, where they provide a true indication of the quality of the load, not by scoops from a belt where the sample is almost automatically skewed in the supplier's favour.
- They have gantries to enable safe visual inspection and temperature readings of the loaded pellets.
- They have retractable chutes with air-extraction, which locate into the hatches of our tankers and suck the dust out as the pellets load, rather than allowing the dust to billow out into the surrounding area.
- They have dehumidifiers to maintain a dry atmosphere in the silo, to prevent degradation from humidity while the pellets are in storage.
Most of our competitors cut the corners on most of these features to save a little money at the expense of the quality of your fuel, safety and the environment.
Quality wood pellets
There is no point investing in a unique network of top-quality depots and delivery trucks, and using it to deliver a poor-quality fuel. When Summerleaze took over the management of Forever Fuels, there were few British wood pellet producers and their quality was very poor. It was so bad that we had to dispose of much of the stock we inherited.
Unable to get assurances on quality from the British producers, we decided to import wood pellets from countries where pellet heating had been successful for decades. We picked Sweden, and became the first supplier to import quality wood pellets to the British heating market. We established facilities to import into Avonmouth (Bristol) and the Humber long before other British wood pellet suppliers.
In time, new wood pellet factories were established in the UK, producing higher quality pellets, and the quality of British product generally improved. As British producers achieved the necessary standard, we offered their product and reduced our reliance on imports. But as the market expanded rapidly with the introduction of the Renewable Heat Incentive in 2011, imports again became important to maintain sufficient volume of good quality wood pellets at competitive prices.
Forever Fuels' long experience with imported wood pellets and established infrastructure gives us the capability to handle imports in the way that they need to be handled. Too many wood pellet suppliers have treated imports as though they are straight out of the factory gate. In reality, it is more difficult and more important to manage the supply chain tightly from the factory to the customer's store when wood pellets travel long distances and are handled multiple times.
For example, the standard screening system that has been used at the import stores is the same system that has been used to load out British wood pellets. But the imports have been handled many more times than British pellets. They normally contain a higher proportion of fines, and more small fragments just over the fines limit. A handling system that coped OK with British wood pellets in good condition can be overwhelmed by imported pellets. The photo to the right is of pellets from the belt of one of these systems immediately after the screen. This product would be carried to the top of the conveyor, dropped into the truck, and delivered to the customer, without any further cleaning.
We also looked at these systems for our import stores. But because we knew what imports were like, we asked for a guarantee of the the screening efficiency that could be achieved. This manufacturer would offer no guarantee and would only give assurances that it would remove around 2% fines at modest product flow rates. We knew we might need to cope with 5% fines, so we went with the only manufacturer (Rotex) that would guarantee to remove 5% fines at high feed rates (upto 100 tonnes/hour). And (as per all our sites) we put a 5mm mesh on the screen, even though the fines limit is 3.15mm, to remove the fragments that are just over the fines limit, which cause as many problems as the particles just below the limit.
Our systems cost more than double the basic units deployed by the competition, and we incur more losses in the screening by being so rigorous. But we can be confident that the imported wood pellets go out as clean as British pellets to our customers. And if they are distributed via a depot, the pellets are cleaned again at the depot to make sure we remove any fines that are created in the extra stage of handling.
Equally important is to specify a higher grade of wood pellet than the minimum required by ENplus A1. The imported wood pellets will go through many impacts in the handling stages, so a combination is required of soft handling at each stage, and high durability to withstand the impacts that occur.
We have worked closely with our suppliers to achieve these conditions. Whilst the ENplus A1 specification requires a minimum durability of 98%, which is fine for a short supply chain, our suppliers of imported pellets commit to achieve at least 98.5% durability. That is 25% more resilient than the standard (i.e. 1.5% compared to 2%). And our suppliers commit to use soft-loading techniques to minimise the damage when loading the ships.
Much about bulk solids handling is counter-intuitive. Newcomers (and even some established fuel suppliers, not to mention most equipment suppliers) often work on the basis of assumptions that seem "common sense", but which are actually the reverse of the truth.
At Forever Fuels, we set out from the start to be the real experts in the industry. We were the first in the industry to employ the Wolfson Centre for Bulk Solids Handling Technologies at the University of Greenwich to run training courses for our staff. All our employees - office staff and drivers - are put through the Wolfson training, so they understand why they should follow procedures that may seem counter-intuitive at first, and are equipped to explain the principles to our customers. Our customers certainly appreciate it: see the hundreds of independently-verified customer reviews at forever-fuels.reviews.co.uk and the repeated references to the expertise encountered throughout the team.
We helped Wolfson to develop training courses specific to our industry, and encouraged the UK Pellet Council to offer (and our competitors to take) the training to try to dispel some of the myths and fallacies. This had partial success. The Wolfson driver-training courses have become a recommended part of ENplus accreditation, but some players only hear the parts of the training that are convenient to them, and continue to propagate some myths.
We sponsored a series of regional Wolfson courses for installers to try to bring the knowledge to the equipment side of the wood pellet heating industry. Ignorance of the principles of bulk solids handling is a key cause of the endemic design errors in customers' wood pellet storage and handling systems. Unfortunately, this effort encountered more resistance. Only a tiny fraction of installers attended the courses, even though we subsidised the cost and brought it to the regions to make it as accessible as possible. If you want to cut corners to offer more competitive prices, knowledge of the importance of good design is an inconvenience.
We sponsored one of Wolfson's PhD students, who did interesting and important research into the accuracy and significance of durability testing for wood pellets (answer: not very), and developed a better alternative.
We ran a series of tests with Wolfson to investigate the relationship between blowing pressure, blowing distance, and degradation, to verify experimentally that our operating instructions to our drivers were designed to produce the optimal results. We refined our instructions on the strength of these tests.
The operating practices of most pellet suppliers are constrained by their use of tipper-blowers, which prevents them from controlling the pressure to the extent that we can with pressurised tankers. And they have not run tests under scientifically-controlled conditions to establish empirically how their operating procedures might be optimised, and whether the operating practices passed on from one driver to another actually produce the best results. Apart from the principles taught to them by the Wolfson Centre, most of the industry is in effect operating on hearsay.
To try to drive up standards, Forever Fuels was closely involved in 2010/11 in the introduction of the ENplus wood pellet accreditation scheme and the formation of its national body, the UK Pellet Council. Unfortunately, the standards required by ENplus have gradually been watered down to make it acceptable to as many producers and suppliers as possible, but we continue to operate to the high standards that ENplus first set out to ensure.
Forever Fuels' team has around 70 combined years of experience in pellet heating amongst its management and customer-support team. Our senior management are some of the most experienced in wood pellet heating in the country. We are not a wood-chip supplier or an animal-feed supplier or a solid-fuel supplier, who has decided to dabble in wood pellets as an additional activity. We are a specialist wood pellet supplier. Our focus is entirely on wood pellets and on optimising our services to our customers.