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Senator hears about lack of markets for low-grade wood

BERLIN — On July 8, the day before U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen visited the Burgess BioPower biomass plant in Berlin, the plant set a record for wood chip deliveries.

Dammon Frecker, executive vice president of CS Operations, reported that 202 tractor-trailer loads of chips came across the scales, far more than the 115 loads required to fuel the plant.

Frecker reported that the 75-megawatt biomass plant, one of the largest in the country, is the biggest generator of renewable energy in the state.

It is also one of the state’s largest purchasers of low-grade wood, buying about 800,000 tons annually.

Frecker told Shaheen a lot of low-grade wood is coming to Burgess now because of a lack of other markets for it.

Not only is the lack of markets bad for loggers, foresters and timberland owners, Frecker said it is bad for his operation as well. He explained that Burgess can’t consistently take such large loads of wood and will have to peel back on deliveries. He said he worries about the security of their wood supply if there are no other markets for low grade wood.

The same concern is being expressed through the entire industry, said N.H. Timberland Owners Association Executive Director Jasen Stock.

Stock said in the past six to eight months, there has been an extreme contraction in low-grade wood markets. A number of small low-grade biomass plants closed after Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed a bill that provided a subsidy to the plants.

The explosion at the Androscoggin Mill in Jay, Maine, took out the boiler, which was a major consumer of low-grade pine wood in New England.

“It’s just kind of one body blow after another,” said Stock.

The impact is felt throughout because sawmills and timberland owners depend on markets for their low-grade wood and sawdust to remain financially viable. If there is less wood being cut, Stock said the effect is felt by loggers like Roger Garland of North Conway.

Garland, who has logged since 1975, said his logging operation has been on a downward slope for the last six years. Where he once had 50 employees, he is now down to 12.

Right now, Stock said there is a lot of timberland in play as the baby boomer generation retires and land shifts ownership.

If the new owners don’t see a future in growing trees and forestry, they could look at developing into housing or something else.

“That’s a real concern. And that’s a concern for us as a state for tourism,” he said.

Stock said he worked with Shaheen’s staff to try and include some stimulus money for the timber industry in the CARES bill. While it was unsuccessful, he said if there is an opportunity to try again they would like that. He said the money is needed to create markets.

“If you’re going to use stimulus money, use it to create a market so that landowner can do that timber sale,” he said.

On a positive note, Stock said COVID-19 has increased the demand for lumber as people laid off are spending time renovating their homes.

Frecker told the senator that Burgess BioPower is working with the city of Berlin on a project to use some of the waste heat from its cooling tower to heat city streets and sidewalks in the downtown.

Berlin City Manager James Wheeler and Mayor Paul Grenier said the city and Burgess have applied for a federal BUILD grant that would cover the cost and expect to hear if the application is selected in September.

Frecker also reported that the company hoping to use some of its waste heat for a commercial greenhouse on the property. CS Operations, the owner of Burgess BioPower, is talking to a greenhouse company that would locate on the site and grow greens.