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                                  By Douglas Rooks

     Pellet plants designed for small landowners are on the drawing board, and, in one case, ready to start up, as Maine wood markets adjust to the dearth in demand for softwood pulp produced by the closure of several paper mills.

     Tony Woods of Baldwin, with several investors and partners, hopes to break ground this fall on a mill in Baldwin that would process 35,000 tons a year when it begins operating, now projected at sometime in 2017. Woods, with his father, previously operated a pallet mill in town, and he said the new venture is specifically sized to interest small landowners who now have difficulty selling the softwood pulp from a typical harvest in western Maine.

     He’s obtained a “greenfield” site for the pellet mill on 20 acres that will feature a 150-by-100 steel building, plus a separate structure for debarking and chipping, “with plenty of room to expand,” he said. The plant, Woods said, would be “one of the modern and efficient facilities in New England. We don’t want to be out chasing bids, finding what’s cheaper.” The idea is to “offer complete controls from the point material arrives, to the point where it’s shipped to customers.”

     And while the capacity may seem robust, Woods points out that it’s small compared to the demand from even the smallest of the closed Maine paper mills, which purchased two million cords a year. There are a few 250,000 cord pellet mills in New England, he said, but he wants to emphasize high quality pellets rather than just volume.

     Along the Midcoast, Erik Carlson was just about ready to go in August, testing and fine-tuning his equipment, with a pellet mill in the Boothbay Industrial Park that includes a 60-by-60-foot building and an open shed for debarking. His mill, with an annual capacity of 700-800 tons, is intended to complement his consulting forestry and logging business, where customers can currently find few markets for the softwood pulp from harvests. “Ever since the Bucksport mill shut down, it’s been a problem,” Carlson said.

     The smaller, specialty equipment for the plant was purchased in China during a trip Carlson took last winter, after acquiring the required “invitation” to make the visit. He expects to sell pellets through local hardware stores as well as direct from the plant, and would even like to offer landowners the opportunity to process pulp into pellets for their own use. Carlson thinks ventures such as his are timely, because “they don’t need a big land base,” and he can obtain all the wood he needs within Lincoln County.

     While he sees the possibility for several such mills around the states, Carlson cheerfully admits that “I’m the guinea pig. I’m the first one. I hope it’s a model that works.” For small landowners, he sees new uses for softwood as “a survival tactic. You just can’t get rid of it now.”

     Tom Doak, Maine Woodland Owners executive director, said new pellet plants are welcome. “At a time when several pulp and paper mills have closed or curtailed their wood-buying, new markets, like those for pellets, are good news for landowners,” he said.

     Pellet sales have been slow over the past year as fuel oil prices have plunged, yet Tony Woods sees a strong future for pellets, in part because of the investments businesses and public buildings such as schools and hospitals have made in converting their boilers to burn pellets. “One of the attractions is that stumpage prices have been stable for a long time.” Pellets can be competitive against oil at $2 a gallon, he said, “and most of the time it’s been well above that.” The delivered cost of pellets “has stayed in a tight band, because the price of pulp has been very consistent.”

     Since most homeowners burn hardwood in their woodstoves, it seems counterintuitive that softwood, especially the white pine that’s common around Baldwin, would make superior pellets, but that’s the case, Woods said. “It’s all about BTU content,” he said, and processed softwood breaks down less readily than hardwood, and produces less sawdust, with lower ash content. “It might be be a 1% loss, against 3-4% for hardwood,” he said. “That kind of difference ads up.”

     Pellet plants, though they’ve been around for a decade, “are really very much a new industry. They haven’t matured,” Woods said. “It’s not always a well-understood option, and there’s still a lot of education to be done.” He doesn’t expect to sign up every home or business. “If you can get natural gas through a pipe, that’s the cheapest option,” but many thousands of Maine homes won’t have such access – and, as he points out “locally sourced wood puts 90% back into the local economy.”

     Woods is still looking for investors; one he’s already signed up is Jo Pierce, a former Maine Woodland Owners president. He and Erik Carlson both welcome inquiries from landowners. Woods can be reached at 210-7805, while Carlson can be contacted at 319-4101, or at his website, CandDforestry.com. 

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