N.B. WOODLOT OWNERS HOPE TO DEVELOP CLEAN BURNING PELLETS- EVEN WITHOUT GOVERNMENT AID
(originally published Nov. 11/2008 in the Aquinian)
Frank MacLaughlin, president of the Northumberland Woodlot Owners association, feels environmental concerns have become more than a handful- he sees climate change as the defining issue of the day. But what he’s clutching in his palms at the moment just might be one of many small solutions- they look like bits of pig feed, but they’re actually wood pellets that can be burned in small plants to heat homes across the province this winter, offering a clean alternative to oil.
“You don’t have to be a genius to know that oil commodities aren’t getting any cheaper,” MacLaughlin says, letting the pellets slip through his fingers and land with soft thuds on his desk, until he’s only pinching one between his thumb and pinky. “And we need to think of ways to cope with that higher cost.”
The Woodlot Owners Association sees a pellet plant in Miramichi as a way to start coping- making the town greener, and offering jobs to some of the few hundred mill workers who were layed off last year. MacLaughlin says it’s a golden opportunity, one that our provincial government seems willing to let pass.
“The premier talks about self sufficiency, and projects like this are an ideal way to start,” MacLaughlin says, adding that the supply and demand is already there.
Rather than leaving the tons of waste wood that litter our forests to rot, he and the rest of the association propose erecting plants that grind those blow downs into pellets. MacLauglin said it would turn that trash into a clean burning treasure, one that grows more valuable every day as oil and electric heating costs soar. But when the Woodlot Owners Association went to the government for a loan to begin construction, they were turned down.
“For whatever reason, they were reluctant to jump into bed with us,” MacLaughlin says, scooping the remaining pellets off his desk before heading toward his very own wood pellet stove, which sits on the far end of the room. The flames inside its open door give off a rosy glow as he tosses them inside, muttering, “The government is missing out on a serious opportunity.”
But Ryan Donaghy, communications head at business N.B, said that the province made no such decision out of haste, and that there is no bias in the business opportunities they accept or decline. “For each and every opportunity that comes forward or that we seek, we go through a very rigorous due diligence process,” he said.
Kevin Forgrave, executive director of the Northumberland Woodlot Owners Association, said Shawn Graham’s Liberals should use that same due diligence in following the lead of other governments- like Maine’s policy to convert 44 thousand homes over the next five years to wood pellet heating, or Newfoundland’s incentive of a $1500 subsidy for home owners who switch from oil furnaces or electric heating to pellet wood stoves.
He said that the installation of these stoves, just like the one MacLaughlin uses, can be a pricey investment for homeowners. But with the money they save on oil, there’s an average full return within four years. He added that the government could save a fortune by heating their own facilities, like schools, gun registries, and hospitals, in this manner.
“There’s also the added value of being self sufficient, in your own region,” Forgrave said. “If you’re dependent on oil, than you’re dependent on outside factors. But if you’re dependent on wood pellets, that could be something sustainably supplied within the community. It would certainly make sense that way.”
But he understands the government’s reluctance. Their plant, which they plan to call the Miramichi Premium Pellet Company, would only employ 35 people initially.
“The politicians are looking for something major that’ll have a huge influence on election time,” Forgrave said. “What we’re proposing won’t cause a solution for everything, but I’m not sure if a solution like that is even out there.”
Shawn Graham’s Liberals are looking out there for those big solutions, like the pulp mill that recently opened in Nackawic, and a rumored solar plant on the old UPM grounds.
Forgrave said those initiatives are important, and that their pellet plant is small time in comparison. But because the Miramichi Premium Pellet Company would operate on a smaller scale, that also means they would need far less funding.
He added that the 35 positions within their plant would eventually spread to hundreds of more jobs. This would include opportunities for wood workers, who would cut the waste timbre and bring it in to be processed. And a demand for stoves to burn these pellets would mean opportunities for workers looking to install them. In all, Forgrave said the Woodlot Association is estimating the plant could bring in $25 million a year to the local economy once it’s in full swing.
Forgrave and MacLaughlin added that they weren’t bitter with the government’s decision. Instead, they decided to take matters into their own hands. They reached out to form a partnership with Econcern, a company based out of the Netherlands. Forgrave said a government loan would have helped the process move along quicker, but with Econcern’s support, the Woodlot Association hopes to start construction this fall and have the plant up and running by this time next year.
“Econcern is a company with a track record for being environmentally conscious. They’re not looking to come in here and rape our forest,” MacLaughlin said, unlike the Finnish corporation UPM, which acquired the city’s mill a few years before. That partnership with UPM left a bitter taste in the mouths of most Miramichers- many accused the corporation of gutting the surrounding forests, and giving unjustified layoffs to hundreds of workers.
“It was important to find a company like Econcern, that shared our environmental and economic interests,” MacLaughlin said, “Because the community has made big partnerships before for profit, and that’s important. But big profit for the city won’t do you much good when you’re citizens don’t have steady jobs, a stable environment or clean air.”
Forgrave said that Econcern will help market the pellets, but will share equal control with the Woodlot Association. “You also can’t place a value on our intent to stay here and operate successfully in this region,” he said. “We’ll have a vested interest to meet that demand accordingly. We aren’t going to take our wood lots and move to another place.”
“Really, when you look at it, the economic survival of a community comes mostly from within,” Forgrave added. “The success of a community comes from its own people being able to maintain the viability of it, and here’s a perfect example of that.”
“We are in almost a crisis mode, from a private wood lot standpoint, because of all the downturn in the forest industry. It’s not just in Miramichi, but across New Brunsiwck,” Forgrave said. “I’m not saying our pellet plant can single handedly solve it. But we started this initiative ourselves, and it just goes to show projects like this can shift that downturn into an upturn.”
MacLaughlin stressed that this plant isn’t just a solution for Miramichi- similar pellet plants can be erected across the province, if New Brunswickers are only willing to make it happen.
“We have to start investing in ourselves,” MacLaughlin said, warming his outstretched palms by his stove’s roaring fire. “And this just goes to show that if we do, even without government aid, we can help sustain ourselves.”