Wood study stirs call for innovation

A recent study of timber supply in Coos County has come up with a surprising conclusion: There may not be enough wood available in the region.

The study, prepared by Landvest as a project of the Coos County Economic Action Plan, focuses on the availability of low-grade wood in a 75-mile radius of Berlin.

The study stems from concern about future logging activity in the Northern Forest, which was spurred by the closure of Wausau Paper, Groveton Paperboard and the Nexfor Fraser pulp mill, all heavy consumers of low-grade pulp wood. Nexfor Fraser alone accounted for 1 million tons annually.

“We’re trying to replace our pulp and paper industry,” said Peter Riviere, project facilitator and executive director of Coos County Economic Council. “We needed to be informed by accurate data.”

A 50-year model incorporating present stock, growth rate, species, terrain constraints and land use and ownership estimated a baseline annual harvest of 4.6 million tons. That breaks down into 3.6 million tons of low-grade logs, tops and branches, and about 1.7 million tons of high-grade logs used for lumber, furniture and veneer.

Existing users — pulp mills and biomass power plants — absorb almost 2.9 million tons annually already, leaving an estimated 640,000 tons available. Proposed users, including a Berlin pellet mill not included in the report, could require 1.5 million tons. Therein lies the problem. Pulling wood from outside the 75-mile radius could prove too expensive and make projects economically unfeasible.

Other proposed users include power plants, a wood boiler at the Gorham paper mill and wood pellet plants in Whitefield as well as in Island Pond, Vt.

According to Alan McLain — a Berlin native and former paper mill worker who’s principal in Greenovia LLC, the company building the Berlin pellet mill — “to start, we’re going to use about 200,000 tons,” he said. “In the next phase, we’ll double that.”

McLain had the idea for a local pellet mill several years ago and was in the process of developing a business plan when he met Albrecht Von Sydow, a German native and owner of Woodstone USA LLC. Woodstone owns a plant in Holland, Mich., and is planning to build one in Moreau, N.Y., as well as Berlin. Slated to break ground in early 2009, the Berlin facility is expected to employ 30 to 35 workers.

McLain is also investigating large-scale wood boiler systems for industrial and commercial use.

Jeff Hayes, assistant director of North Country Council and co-facilitator of the Coos plan, said he sees the wood availability report as reinforcing the desirability of smaller-scale projects. The proposed Clean Power Plant, a 30-megawatt biomass plant to be located in Berlin, will require about 200,000 tons per year. An earlier proposed 100-megawatt plant in Groveton, pulled due to lack of transmission line capacity, would have required at least three times as much wood.

The Clean Power Plant is currently in the queue to go on the power grid behind Granite Reliable Power’s proposed Coos wind farm project.

Nevertheless, said Hayes, it’s important to consider “what’s the highest and best use of the resource.” Hayes aid that, while biomass plants absorb low-grade wood and could provide some local energy savings, value-added uses need to be considered. “We need to innovate,” he said. According to Hayes, there are only eight wood products manufacturing companies in Coos County, out of 33 in the state.

Riviere agreed with Hayes’s assessment. “It’s a finite resource,” he said. “The report took the hot air out of the balloon.”

Riviere is leading the charge on another task assigned a high priority in the plan: development of a tech transfer laboratory for wood product innovation. New products and processes developed by forest product laboratories in Madison, Wis., and at the University of Maine would be evaluated for commercialization potential.

Riviere and Katherine Eneguess, president of White Mountains Community College, are working on finding one or more graduate-level academic partners. Their vision is that graduate students will refine existing research and identify which products are commercially feasible. Typical research projects include engineered wood products, biorefining, adhesives and wood preservation techniques.

The tech transfer lab would then help match entrepreneurs with investors and bring the products to market. An incubator and business support also may be offered, along the lines of the Dartmouth Regional Technology Center in Lebanon.

Riviere also said he hopes to work with the Northern Forest Center’s educational collaborative, a four-state regional approach to forest management and development.

“They’re looking at a higher efficiency use of the wood resource,” Riviere said.