Coos the Center of Alternative Energy Part 2
So former Cong. Bass has been hired to “smoothe the way” for Laidlaw’s plans for firing up the #11 boiler on the Burgess Pulp Mill site. Good luck Charlie!
Meanwhile 62% respond to Coos Conversations poll saying they oppose (with a good portion saying they’d leave Berlin if that plan transpires) reuse of the conversion boiler as a biomass plant. And Michael Bartoszek of Laidlaw says “unquestionably the wood basket is there” to supply his proposed plant’s 500,000 ton appetite.
Interesting stuff! But what’s the context? Is there sufficient wood in that wood basket?
Lest anyone think I’m the skunk at the picnic let me start by saying I am pro alternative energy and well planned, efficient biomass plants as a source of investment, jobs and sustainable power for the entire county. In my business it would be foolhardy not to look at $500 million in potential development as a worthy addition to the county’s economy. However, I am not supportive of: development that repeats the unreliable boom/bust economic cycles of the past; seeing unsustainable forestry prolonged in this county; inefficiency using 19th century technology when 21st technology and knowledge is available.
Let me peel back the skins of the onion a bit.
Last installment I wrote of stand alone biomass plants being 30% efficient. That’s fact, not fiction and it doesn’t matter who operates the plant that’s just the physical reality of steam generated electricity, 60% of the available energy in the wood chip is shed in unused steam, stack gasses and inefficiencies. Not a very good use of a finite, if not scarce, local resource. At least Laidlaw has said they are looking to co-locate an industry that can use some of their steam which makes the plant more efficient. But developers - please don’t suggest that the beneficent reason you are building these plants is to put loggers back in the woods earning a living. That’s blowing steam up my skirt and I don’t need that rush.
Ask an idled logger. There is no living to be made harvesting low-grade wood alone. Harvesting biomass for power plants is a secondary consideration for loggers mobilizing on harvesting jobs. If there are no saw logs/veneer logs, high-grade, high value wood to harvest and produce a decent return on investment no logger is going to invest $300,000 on a skidder to twitch skinny sticks of low-grade wood to fuel Laidlaw’s plant, or any other. That’s just poor economics. So please! No more impassioned pleas for “helping the poor loggers”. Come up with a sustainable plan for timber harvesting and they will be more than satisfied and able to plan their involvement in their chosen professions and quite willing to make those investments.
The larger question is what is the wood supply? Frankly no one has the irrefutable data to answer that question. There are bits and pieces of data that can help educate your guess whether the supply is sufficient but it would still be agues. So, consider this string of information.
Coos County is 1.2 million acres (more or less). A recent study by the AMC found about half the county’s timber parcels under some form of conservation easement directing management to production of higher value saw logs on long-term rotations (i.e., less frequent major cuttings using prescribed Timber Stand Improvement plans) basically allowing timber stands to recover from heavy cutting by paper pulp producers in the past decades. One timber resource expert said much of the county is even-aged, immature timber stands about 25-40 years from harvest. Will the speaker make that statement on the record? It’s doubtful given his position in the land use hierarchies of the state. So we’re stuck with overused hyperbole in making economic planning decisions instead of solid data.
To supply presently operating biomass plants in the region (Whitefield and Bethlehem) requires roughly 415,000 tons of wood a year. If we assume that each acre can produce a ton of low grade wood annually about a half million acres are required to satisfy existing need. Add in Laidlaw’s need for 500,000 tons and North Country Renewable Energy (Groveton’s) expressed need for 1.2 million tons and we’re up to 2.11 million tons or 2 million acres producing the average one ton per acre.
Just how big is 2 million acres you ask?
Use the footprint of the White Mountain National Forest for context. It represents a fairly unbroken 800,000 acre chunk of land that runs from Bethel to Lancaster and Randolph to Plymouth. Quite a swath. Now double that footprint and you’re about two thirds of the way to meeting the acreage needs of existing and proposed biomass plants.
Now, mind you we’re assuming each acre is capable of producing a ton of biomass. But is that assumption reasonable? I think not. Let me tell you why.
I recently reviewed an aerial mapping of potential wind turbine sites in the county flown within the last month with snowless conditions. What was striking was the number of evident logging sites where substantial acreage had been heavily logged. Add in the 20,000 acre extraction by TR Dillon in Success and other “hot spots” where heavy logging has taken place and the capacity of the Great North Woods to sustain the present 400,000 ton demand is in doubt, never mind the demand for 5 times that amount.
At the Loggers Mud Season breakfast this past week, reports are filtering out that wood supply and Coos capacity to feed biomass to the new plants is seriously in doubt. Several loggers have told me personally that they are presently supplying chips to Whitefield and Bethlehem but that few of the truckloads are carrying Coos chips. Naturally, wood supply has always been a regional issue with timberlands from Maine and Vermont and below the notches being tapped to make up supply. All well and good but what new demands for wood supplies are being contemplated in those neighboring states and what control do we have over those discussions or plans?
This then becomes a regional issue and not simply a Berlin or Groveton issue. And it becomes an issue where good data is desperately needed to answer the many supply and sustainability questions.
If our goal is to create a sustainable, green and renewable alternative energy industry for Coos County, how can we proceed without the information?
Next time in this space we’ll look at the price point of wood and its highest and best value.
Special thanks again to Peter R. for this guest blog.