June 17, 2019
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Wood pellet producers ask federal government for help

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Dallas Tonsager (right), under secretary for rural development, talks to George Soffron, the president and CEO of Corinth Wood Pellets. Tonsager was visiting Maine to meet with pellet maufacturers in the state and to discuss issues that concern the industry and about the energy future of Maine.

CORINTH, Maine — Wood pellet heating is catching on at a slower rate than its leaders would like to see, but with some support from the federal government it could “go viral,” according to the owner of a local pellet producer.

Representatives of Maine’s pellet industry, including three owners of wood pellet companies and Dutch Dresser, president of the Maine Pellet Fuels Association, met with Dallas Tonsager, undersecretary for U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development, on Thursday morning at Corinth Wood Pellets. They asked for the USDA’s support in boosting the alternative heating method.

“We see [wood pellet heating] as a major solution for Mainers,” said George Soffron, president and CEO of Corinth Wood Pellets.

But the pellet industry isn’t receiving benefits from the federal government at the same level as producers of ethanol fuels in other parts of the country, such as the Midwest, according to Soffron.

“Liquid fuels clearly are given higher subsidies and preferential treatment,” he said after leading Tonsager on a tour of the facility to show him the pellet manufacturing process.

Tonsager said he didn’t know enough about the wood pellet industry to fully back it as a viable source of heat, which is part of the reason he came to visit Maine.

“I think you have an evolving industry and the pieces are starting to fit together,” he said.

Tonsager said every region of the country has its strengths and weaknesses. Maine’s strength is its vast forests that provide a huge and, more important, renewable source of wood to produce pellets.

In the American Plains, the strength is corn, which becomes ethanol — a step up from Tonsager’s childhood, when he used a mixture of corn cobs and coal to heat the family farmhouse in South Dakota.

Tonsager said his department would take a closer look at its rules and regulations so Maine’s pellet producers don’t run into barriers when deciding how to use their funding, which would allow the fledgling industry to make better use of Maine’s wood energy resources.

“To hear [Tonsager] say that strategies need to be different by region was a huge step forward,” Soffron said.

Pellets start out as wet wood chips — which are ground into a finer form — and sawdust that has a moisture content around 45 percent. Much of the wood comes from the floors and waste bins of other facilities that don’t have a use for the residual wood.

The chips and dust go through a drying process, which drops the moisture content to about 5 percent by the time they reach pellet form, according to Soffron.

The wood particles are forced through a series of small holes in a die, which compresses the wood into pellets — similar to the way an extruder works.

Pellets generate a lot of heat, burn cleanly because they’re dense and burn easily because of their low moisture content, Soffron said.

Soffron said he expects pellets to grow in popularity, especially if heating oil prices continue to rise each winter. Still, Corinth Wood Pellets is only using about half of its 75,000-ton capacity because demand isn’t high enough.

He said wood pellet heating tends to spread on a street-by-street basis. When one person in a neighborhood gets a pellet stove or boiler, others tend to follow.

If the USDA provides incentives to make the conversion process simpler and cheaper for homeowners and businesses, the sprawl should speed up, Soffron said.

Tonsager said USDA Rural Development would explore ways to make that happen.

“We take the perspective that everything green is good,” he told the pellet industry representatives. “We’re more than anxious to be helpful to what you’re attempting to do.”

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