MILLINOCKET, Maine – New England’s first torrefied wood facility received its final Maine Department of Environmental Protection permit, clearing the way for construction of a $48 million facility, 25 full-time jobs and possibly the birth of a nationwide industry, officials said Thursday.
Cate Street Capital plans to open the Thermogen Industries LLC plant at the site of its Millinocket paper mill, which the company bought in October 2011, in the fall of 2013. The company’s goal: to use about 240,000 to 250,000 tons of wood wastes to produce 110,000 tons of torrefied wood per year at its Katahdin Avenue mill site. The plant’s customers — coal-fired power plants in Europe and the United Kingdom – will use the torrefied wood to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
A type of microwaved wood pellet that burns as hot as coal without coal’s pollutants, torrefied wood burns about 30 percent hotter than typical wood pellets.
“We think that this is a really dynamic and innovative new industry. It is consistent with our department’s understanding that stewardship of our natural resources will ensure a sustainable economy,” said DEP spokeswoman Samantha Depoy-Warren. “It is certainly exciting that with all the historic uncertainty in the Katahdin region, a year after the sale of the region’s paper mills went through, you have a permitted project like this that will put people to work and utilize a sustainable resource.
“From our perspective this is a cool project, and for the region this is potentially a game-changer,” she added. “It is a first-of-its-kind facility and we are happy to have played a small role in this.”
The air-quality permit was issued Monday and the company should have received it Wednesday or Thursday, Depoy-Warren said.
Cate Street looks forward to building the Thermogen facility, Chief Operating Officer Richard Cyr said.
“This is a significant step forward for Thermogen,” Cyr said in a statement. “Our contractor is hiring now for site preparation work, and we expect to be producing torrefied wood pellets for clean power production by fall of next year. Cate Street Capital is proud to developing this next generation of prosperity for the Katahdin region.”
Town Council Chairman John Davis called the permit “great news.”
“It is another manufacturing industry here in Millinocket. It is something we have needed here for a long time,” Davis said. “It won’t offset the uncertainty with No. 11 but it will cushion the blow somewhat. With [the permit issuance] and the opening of Tractor Supply, maybe we are starting to turn the corner a little bit.”
Residents, Davis said, hope that Cate Street will restart the No. 11 paper machine at the mill, the closure of which in September 2008 deprived the Katahdin region of about 150 jobs. Regional unemployment rates peaked at 21 percent in the wake of the closure.
Tractor Supply Co. became the Katahdin region’s first general retailer since Miller’s Department Store closed its doors on Penobscot Avenue in March 2008. Tractor Supply opened at the Northern Plaza Shopping Center on Route 11 within the last month.
Cate Street bought the Millinocket and East Millinocket paper mills and started the new Great Northern Paper Co. in October 2011. The East Millinocket mill employs 272 workers running the mill’s No. 5 and No. 6 machines. Earlier this month, the company started running No. 6 three times weekly.
Company officials have been noncommittal about restarting the Katahdin Avenue mill but are bullish about Thermogen. They hope the torrefied wood machine will be the first of as many as five such machines on Katahdin Avenue and want to build similar facilities across the country.
Cate Street and the contractor building the torrefied wood facility’s foundation are hiring 15 workers to begin work in a few months. They will continue construction over the winter as weather allows, company spokesman Scott Tranchemontagne said.
The DEP and the Millinocket Planning Board already approved the company’s land development permits. The DEP land-use permit came Aug. 16.
Thermogen proposes to use microwaves and thermal energy to burn water and low-energy-value volatiles from wood wastes — the usually very green tops and bottoms of trees and branches — and create black wood pellets with 30 percent more energy than found in wood pellets typically used in pellet stoves, according to the permit.
Thermogen plans to truck the wood wastes to a plant in the wood yard of the paper mill at 1 Katahdin Ave. and place it on a large paved storage pad. Workers will load the biomass, which is about 45 percent moisture, to a screen and hammermill that will crush the wastes to a half-inch size. A conveyer belt will take the biomass through a dryer that will dehydrate the wood until its moisture content is about 15 percent.
Machinery will separate combustible gases generated in the dryer and the gases will be rendered harmless before being discharged into the air as the biomass is fed into a Targeted Intelligent Energy System processor. Essentially a large microwave oven, the TIES machine will use microwaves and thermal energy to cook the biomass at 400 to 570 degrees Fahrenheit and infuse it with carbon energy.
As the infusion occurs, volatile organic compounds, or gases, will be captured from the biomass and about 90 percent of them will be routed back to the dryer or the TIES machine to help it generate heat, the permit states. A wood burner will heat the system at startup until the process generates enough heat to render the burner unneeded, the permit states.
According to the permit, about 21 percent of the volatile organic compounds will be put into the atmosphere through a stack as the biomass gets cooled with water, pelletized and collected. Five Maine companies, including the Great Northern Paper Co. LLC in East Millinocket, employ similar biomass heating and cooling operations and the environmental controls that limit pollution from those operations, the permit states.
A combination of add-on controls, clean combustion, wet stacks and scrubbers will keep the facility’s air and VOC emissions within legal standards. Thermogen agreed to limit its dryer use to processing no more than 184,788 tons of dried wood annually and to run the wood burner no more than 1,314 hours annually, the permit states.
Thermogen will give the DEP plans detailing daily startup, shutdown and emergency malfunction plans within 180 days of starting operations, the permit states.
The plant should run with fewer emitted pollutants, and more quietly, than the paper mill it will be built adjacent to, DEP officials have said.