LAKE PLACID - The wood pellet and wood chip industry is going to have to grow if regional companies that make and distribute the product are going to stay alive.
Pat Curran, owner of Curran Renewable Energy in Massena, was part of a panel discussing the forest products industry Wednesday at the Adirondack Research Consortium.
Curran explained how he was in the paper business, but when the market for that started to decline, he started to look into the biomass (pellets, chips and other such wood products) market. He got $11 million in funding through the St. Lawrence County Industrial Development Agency to build a 100,000-ton pellet plant.
Curran said he had one month of a strong market for his products, and then it dropped off. In 2010, there was demand for 11,000 tons of pellets, and in 2011, he had demand to produce 59,000 tons, both numbers well below the facility's capacity. "Now we're sitting with this huge investment with no place to sell our product," Curran said.
He said his company has tried everything it can think of to build a domestic market, but the demand today is not large enough to keep the biomass production facilities in the region in business. He's looked into shipping his product to Europe, where there is a larger demand for biomass, but with shipping costs it would not be worth it. He's met others who are selling their biomass products in Europe at less than cost to move their inventory.
"The North American market has to grow," Curran said.
Part of the problem is familiarity. Curran is putting a biomass system into his own home that will heat his house, his garage and his hot tub, and he said he's going to open it up to anyone who wants to see what the system is like. Another speaker mentioned he put a pellet stove in his house in part because his neighbor had one that he had used for years that worked well.
One of the problems is the way subsidies are distributed, Curran said. In 2010, his company didn't get a specific subsidy that other companies did get, so others could sell their product to box stores at a lower cost than Curran could afford without subsidies. That doesn't help competition, he said.
He suggested that the best way to handle subsidies in a way that will grow the biomass industry is to give them to the end users as much as possible, like homeowners who want to install a pellet stove. Programs like that in Europe have been the most successful in growing the industry there, he said.
Curran said he sees the biomass industry as having the most potential for creating green jobs locally in the new wave of green energy and green jobs.
If the market grows, there is plenty of supply that can be converted into biomass that hasn't been touched yet.
"We're barely tapping what needs to be harvested," Curran said.
There is currently some market for biomass, though. After Curran spoke, The Wild Center's executive director, Stephanie Ratcliffe, gave a presentation on the biomass heating system Tupper Lake's natural history museum installed. Curran Renewable Energy supplies The Wild Center's wood chips, and it also supplies other large institutions like Clarkson University and some public grade schools.
Ratcliffe encouraged people to go out and buy pellet stoves. She said switching from propane to the museum's current system, which also uses other renewable energy sources like solar, saved $31,652 in the first heating season it was in play.
"For a nonprofit like us, this makes a huge difference," Ratcliffe said.
Ratcliffe said biomass is a good option for people who want to go green in the Adirondacks because it keeps jobs local when wood pellets and chips are created from trees locally.
"That's why it's a no-brainer for the Adirondacks," Ratcliffe said.
Michael Kelleher from SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry also spoke, talking about the facility his college is building in Syracuse that will include a wood pellet-powered heating system, and Nate Russell of New York State Energy Research and Development Agency talked about his agency's sponsoring of biomass projects.