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Counting new rings: Transformation, innovation in Maine’s forest products industry

Posted Nov. 28, 2013, at 9:34 a.m.
George Danby
Rosaire Pelletier is Gov. Paul LePage’s forest products industry liaison at the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development.
Contributed photo
Rosaire Pelletier is Gov. Paul LePage’s forest products industry liaison at the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development.

After four decades of experience in the Maine forest products industry, I have seen the average per-logger product output increase by over 25 cords a week and the per-year average increase by over 1,500. These simple figures may largely be attributed to technological advance, as well as new market demand.

But transformation in forestry is not defined necessarily by how much more wood we can extract. Within the scope of an industrial market that calls for environmentally sustainable practices, Maine can proudly say its growth-to-harvest ratio is very nearly even. And with an increase in private investment companies showing interest in our forest land, there is always a commitment to ecologically sound harvesting in the pursuit of commercial gains.

And we’re not just making paper. Old Town Fuel and Fiber has developed a system for extracting fuel from its process of pulping. This biochemical fuel will create a new stream of revenue for the pulp industry and add value to the forest product industry overall, making what was once just waste a creative commodity. With the help of the University of Maine, Old Town Fuel and Fiber will be the leader in this technology. It’s a major event, and this investment in the new refinery at the company could be worth about $60 million.

The practice of creating biofuel from forest products is not exclusive to one company. Thermogen Industries, soon-to-be manufacturer of torrefied wood, is set to become the first full-scale commercial production facility of this renewable energy source in the United States. The company is building a plant in Millinocket, a unique opportunity to establish Maine as the leader in a budding material industry.

Torrefied wood is a coal substitute and is a direct replacement fuel in coal-fired power plants. Microwave technology drives all the moisture from the wood, creating a wood pellet with similar characteristics to coal. The hydrophobic aspect improves storage and shipping capabilities, allowing it to be packed into bulk densities. It also allows for it to be burned simultaneously with coal — without any expensive new machinery. The key difference between coal and torrefied wood is that torrefied wood is virtually carbon-neutral. Thermogen Industries is also looking to create biofuel from waste products.

Under the leadership of Gov. Paul LePage, our forests are open for business, and other private investment entities have most certainly taken notice of our state’s natural potential.

Ecoshel, a company that manufactures a patented cedar shingle panel — “the Ecoshel smart-shingle system” — is preparing to launch its new roof and siding product and relocate its business to Maine in order to facilitate the addition of a northern white cedar version of the panel. Maine’s northern white cedar abundance provides ample material to what is estimated to become a $4 million business as soon as next year.

Companies like Old Town Fuel and Fiber, Cate Street Capital, Irving and International Grand Investor Corp. all have a distinct interest in Maine’s forest products. Each potential investment is framed by the transforming value our fertile land has to offer.

 

According to the recently released Maine Forest Economy report, along with investment-opportunity data that’s been collected, 1,795 direct and indirect jobs are projected to be created in our state, attributable to Maine’s innovative forest-based economy.

Throughout Maine’s history, the forest products industry has been one of our leading natural resource based economic drivers. The fact it continues to yield international investment and appreciation is a testament to the true value that new innovations bring to materials that have always been a part of our heritage. As the many rings grow wider, our prosperity in the forest product industry regenerates and our economy continues to reap the benefit.

Rosaire Pelletier is Gov. Paul LePage’s forest products industry liaison at the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development.

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