Except for the people living in snowy Patagonia, New Zealand or the Falkland Islands, July likely isn’t the time to be considering home-heating solutions. Unless you’re thinking ahead.
A South Sound manufacturing firm has been doing just that for the past four years.
Wrapped in shipping plastic, 14 furnaces stand ready for delivery in a building adjacent to a South Tacoma steel fabricating plant. Five more units in different stages of assembly wait in a line. One demonstration unit burns a chunk of wood, approaching 1,400 degrees.
Outside, no smoke curls from the chimney.
That’s part of the point. A computer inside the furnace will control the life of the burn. No smoke. Renewable energy.
Made in Tacoma.
“We started Greenwood Clean Energy in July 2009,” said German Burtscher, CEO of Greenwood Clean Energy. “We had an idea of a next generation of wood gasification. We fell in love with our own idea. We take an industrial concept and bring it down to a residential footprint.”
Call it a furnace. Call it a wood stove. Call it a biomass combustion platform that uses computer algorithms to ensure a clean, efficient burn. Whatever you call it, understand that it combines the oldest form of human heating – fire – with the latest computer and materials technology.
You build a fire inside a box lined with 750 pounds of ceramic. The onboard computer controls the flow of air from below the firebox.
The fire burns at about 1,400 degrees. Along with burning the wood, the fire burns the gases in a “burn-out zone” that will reach 2,000 degrees. The heat is transferred in an isolated “water-tube heat exchanger.”
So far, $1.8 million has been invested in the project. Furnaces have been delivered to customers in Europe, the Northeast and Alaska.
Add Washington, which is important.
Most of Pierce County is in a federal non-attainment area for small particulate air pollution – essentially soot – which lodges deep in lung tissue.
Breathing the tiny particulates has been linked to respiratory disease, decreased lung function, asthma attacks and heart attacks.
So the state Department of Ecology has heretofore not been keen to approve wood boilers. In fact, Greenwood’s is the first.
“It does comply with Washington state law,” said Rod Tinnemore, environmental planner and wood stove coordinator at the state Department of Ecology. Tinnemore has approved the Greenwood stove for sale in the state.
“That means they have been tested according to the parameters we set up. We feel it does comply,” he said.
“I’m actually quite impressed with the model and the technology,” he said. “I think it’s very creative. It has a lot of promise. I hope it spurs innovation. You move from a fire in a box to ‘here’s a way to use a renewable resource without creating a health problem.’”
Tinnemore said he is likewise impressed with the use of a ceramic material for thermal storage. It’s better, he said, if only because it offers a much smaller footprint than boilers that “store the extra heat in a large vat of water – bulky and cumbersome.”
Greenwood, he said, “combined optimum combustion with a smaller footprint. It’s very innovative, a very cool idea.”
Why hasn’t someone thought of this before?
“Most U.S. manufacturers don’t use thermal storage,” Tinnemore said. Beyond that, they burn dirty.
“We require that they use softwood fuel. Most others use hardwood, like oak. When you burn Douglas fir, you get two to four times as much pollution. Greenwood is the only company that has said we’ll test with Douglas fir. No one else has stepped forward and offered to do that.”
Greenwood, he said, has a “great idea. It’s a simple idea and he’s found a simple way to burn wood.”
But it’s not so simple to bring to market.
“Over three years, we have learned how to manage the combustion process,” Burtscher said. “We’ve had over 6,000 test hours, testing how temperatures relate to the process. We have learned how to correlate the combustion process, when to put in air, how much.”
The greatest problem, he said, was “that you need to be at about 1,200 degrees. Metal doesn’t like 1,200 degrees.”
The ceramic firebox is manufactured in Spokane.
“We use water for heat transfer rather than heat storage,” said Bryan Louviere, a partner at Greenwood Clean Energy.
“It took us eight months to develop the algorithm,” Burtscher said. “In many ways, that is the core of how we’re different, using data and ceramics. Everyone else is using downdraft for a two-stage burn. We do an eight-stage burn.”
And the burn commences with an updraft with air supplied from beneath the fuel in the “under-fire zone.”
“We draw air in. We don’t blow air in,” Burtscher said.
To get to the point where workers assemble actual stoves, the company needed financing.
Greenwood Clean Energy, with offices in King County, is a partner in Greenwood Manufacturing, which manufactures the actual product in Tacoma.
Greenwood Clean Energy has so far invested about $1.7 million and is seeking an additional $5 million with a series B offering.
So far, the company has received:
• $250,000 from the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities
• $350,000 from the Innovate Washington Foundation
• Two U.S. Small Business Innovation Research grants for $97,000 and $140,000
• $490,000 in Series A investments form NW Energy Angels, Keiretsu Forum and angel networks in Tacoma and Vancouver, B.C.
According to Burtscher, orders and backlog in 2013 already are ahead of all sales for 2012, which totaled 44 units. A dealer network in the Northeast has installed more than 75 units with more expected in the autumn. The first unit in the United Kingdom was installed last November, and a dealer network has been established. The company is looking toward markets in France, Italy and Ireland.
As dreams go, the company expects revenue of $99 million by the end of 2017, with net income of $28 million and 9,000 units sold.
The Frontier series units retail for $8,500, or $10,000 installed.
In South Tacoma, Greenwood Manufacturing has the capacity to turn out 7.5 units per day.
“We’re going to be one of the larger exporters in the state,” Burtscher said.
He expects sales of between 200 and 300 units this year, and 1,000 in 2014.
Just as Burtscher is enthusiastic, so are his customers. “It’s more than a stove,” said Tammy Deets of Bainbridge Island. “We have a choice of electricity, propane or oil. When the wood boiler option came out, I was excited. It was great. When we were using propane, we were very mindful and more cognizant of, ‘OK, maybe we just won’t turn on the boiler because it’s 50 degrees outside.’ With the wood boiler, it’s so efficient..”
David Morgan of Ridgefield agrees. “I’d been looking for a stove of that nature for a while, but they weren’t legal in the state. This is more efficient than the wood stoves I was looking at.”
Matthew Carlson of Rochester said he had a few issues with his stove last spring.
“Misaligned wires,” he said. “They came out and helped. I can’t say enough about their customers service. It will pay for itself in five or six years. It’s also saving on my power bill for hot water.”
Finally, there’s Karl Anderson, chairman of the board at Concrete Technology. He’s an investor and has purchased one unit to be installed at his cabin in Alaska and plans to install another at his home in Tacoma.
Anderson first heard about Greenwood as a member of the Tacoma Angel Network. “German made a presentation. I called him and said I wanted to come out and see this. I just said ‘Wow, this is amazing.’ My interest was instant. This guy has something amazing. The world will beat a path to his door.”
The door in Tacoma.C.R. Roberts: 253-597-8535 c.r.roberts@ thenewstribune.com