Maine Woodchipping Business Picks Up Where Loggers Leave Off
In the face of sharply escalating energy costs, the Maine forest is loaded with wood that has been cut, and left to rot into the soil.
While that's not a bad thing environmentally, the wood could be put to use in an energy-starved state. Biomass plants that burn wood to generate energy must sometimes burn demolition debris, some of which contains carcinogens, because wood chips are not available. Paper mills also burn wood chips, to heat their huge interiors.
But most logging companies do not own the expensive chipping machines necessary to make use of the limbs and branches. They leave them there, and go onto the next job.
By logging industry estimates, more than half the limbs that fall when a tree is cut are left in the woods. For the 10 years it takes for the leftovers to decompose, new trees are not growing in their place. And more importantly from a market standpoint, that wood is not being utilized to generate electricity, or in the big boilers that produce heat in paper mills.
Linkletter & Sons of Athens, which annually cuts wood valued at an estimated $6 million, is an exception to the wood wasteland. Linkletter owns two chippers valued at $750,000 each and a smaller $300,000 machine to make use of every limb and branch it cuts. Linkletter hauls the chips to whichever mill is closest to its logging operation at the time.
But the many smaller loggers who leave limbs in the woods need more incentive -- a bigger marketplace -- to turn those limbs into chips.
Linkletter & Sons does contract to do chipping for a few of them.
"There are hundreds of little companies who have no chippers, and some of them we're servicing," said Robert Linkletter, who owns the company along with brothers Richard and Bruce. "Some of them are stuck in the old ways, and they don't want to change things." In other words, they just go on to the next job.
Linkletter & Sons purchased its massive chippers when the ill-fated Boralex biomass plant opened in 1987. GenPower LLC wants to build a new energy plant at the site of the Boralex mill that closed three years ago, and Linkletter sees it as a "win-win" for loggers and energy prices.
"A biomass plant would change that," Linkletter said. "It would just be another market to keep the price up, and these loggers aren't foolish." Linkletter estimated that the 20 large logging operations in the state might account for 40 percent of the volume of trees felled.
"There's more than 50 percent left in the woods, I'll tell you that," he said. "If a market opens up down here, that would help." Linkletter stressed that wood chips burn better than demolition debris.
Some Athens residents are concerned that GenPower will burn debris, and have made efforts to prevent construction of the plant.
The eight plants that do exist, according to the Maine Forest Service, burned 1,453,356 green tons of biomass chips in 2004. "Hog fuel" -- remnants hanging around saw mills -- accounted for another 2,390,981 tons.
The biomass plants burned 255,669 tons of "C and D" waste.
But those numbers are small compared to the state's potential, according to Peter Lammert, utilization and marketing forest for the Maine Forest Service.
The service provides information for informed decisions on managing the state's wood lots. "The logging industry has the potential of filling the gap on biomass," Lammert said. "As it is, (limbs and branches) stay in the woods and go back into the soil. It cuts into company profits." Lammert emphasized that expensive machinery is needed to make it all happen. Scandinavian countries use $500,000 machines that feed chips into a shuttle box, and then into a open-box truck waiting to haul them down the road, he said.
The operator grabs the branches and feeds them into the chipper, located underneath his seat.
"The federal government should sponsor that machine and try to make it cheaper," Lammert said. "Right now, the biomass and the veneer products that come out (of the logging industry) are the gravy and the dessert." Auburn Enterprises has utilized grant monies to conduct research in wood utilization in an environmentally friendly manner. Company President Thom L. Labrie detects an efficiency problem in the industry.
"Underutilization of wood is a significant problem across the entire wood products industry," Labrie said.
"There's mountains and mountains and mountains of recoverable wood. We shouldn't be cutting more trees down until we intelligently utilize what we've already cut down." Wood products The logging industry notwithstanding, small companies that manufacture products such as wooden window frames, furniture and boats customarily dispose of wood scraps.
Duratherm Window Corp. of Vassalboro gives its hardwood leftovers to employees.
Timothy P. Downing, Duratherm president and owner, said workers appreciate the wood, which provides good heat in wood stoves.
The company gives away perhaps four cords worth of hard wood a week, and another 18 to 20 yards of sawdust to local farmers, Downing said.
But Labrie said he and his staff have recovered considerable amounts of wood from saw mill conveyor belts, and squares and rectangles from other companies. He looks for value in short and narrow pieces of wood that customarily are discarded.
Labrie set out to prove that, given some creativity, those short, narrow or thin pieces can have value.
He sized some of the recovered pieces, and made them into wine boxes.
Auburn Enterprises markets the boxes as environmentally friendly. A notice inside the box stated just that, and where the wood came from.
The boxes aren't cheap -- they cost the wine company $18 compared to the $2 charged by Chinese manufacturers. But for buyers of high-end wine, there is a market.
"People looked inside and they started reading it, and their whole facial expression changed," Labrie said. "The bottom line is, the box becomes the gift, and not the wine.
"We ended up selling some of those boxes. That wood is worth more than the best wood that comes out of the tree. You need imagination."
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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News