Maine’s Forest Industry on Brink of Accessing Lucrative European Wood Chip Market

Apr 6, 2017

Maine still has lots and lots of trees, but the decline of the paper industry has devastated rural communities that depend on forest products.

Wood chips, which are burned for fuel in biomass energy plants, are in strong demand in Europe, and have the potential to rejuvenate the forest products sector in Maine. The only problem is that they can’t be exported, because of all the pests and pathogens that could be spread to other countries.

Now one Maine company has a solution to that problem.

“This is a large capacity item here, we’ve kind of had to shuffle things around in the shop in order to make room,” says David Cook, the senior project manager at the Fastco Corporation in Lincoln.

It’s Cook’s job is to keep his metal fabricators on schedule to build the two heater-drying systems that are scheduled to be trucked to Eastport for testing in the next few weeks.

“We’ve built these platforms to build these heaters, which are mostly aluminum,” he says.

Fastco President Allen Smith says if the tests are successful, the heater units will be placed aboard cargo vessels and used to decontaminate low-grade wood chips for shipment to Europe.

“They’re going to burn natural gas through these 12 heater units, and there’s a giant blower in here which will push all of the heat out through a 40-inch duct header, which feeds the top of a tower that has five individual ducts going down to the bottom, which disperse through the very bottom of the cargo hold in the ship, and that forces the hot air up through all the wood chips,” Cook says.

The unit spends several hours heating up the chips in an airtight hold until the humidity level reaches 100 percent and the temperature peaks at 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Thirty minutes later, when the phytosanitation process is over, the chips are bug free and ready for sale to markets in Europe.

University of Maine professor of forest operations, bioproducts and bioenergy Doug Gardner says that means that the state of Maine could finally exploit a competitive advantage.

“In the southern U.S., they’re shipping a lot of biomass material to Europe right now,” he says. “Maine is closer to Europe and provides a shorter shipping distance.”

And demand is strong. Countries in the EU have signed on to a mandate requiring that they must obtain 20 percent of their energy supply from renewable power sources by 2020. Those clean power goals have the potential to revitalize Maine’s forest products industry by providing revenue for landowners and paychecks for woodsmen, truckers and stevedores.

Dana Doran, executive director of the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine, says it would be better if Maine could export more value-added forest products, but recognizes the opportunity.

“Beggers also can’t be choosers, and at this point and we need markets and they’re important, and I think Eastport presents an opportunity,” he says. “I hope that they’re very successful.”

The development of this technology actually began seven years ago, in response to new regulations imposed by the European Union that effectively ended exports of Maine wood chips. Several Maine companies joined forces with UMaine to come up with the heater-dryer system, which is finally ready for a trial run later this month.

In Eastport, expectations are high.

Chris Gardner, director of the Eastport Port Authority
Credit A.J. Higgins / Maine Public

“There’s been much discussed about Washington County. This is, I think, key to our future,” says Chris Gardner, director of the Eastport Port Authority. “We need to continue to invest in what the next industry is going to be, and we think that at the Port of Eastport, our growth here is not just good for Eastport, but it’s got to be good for the entire county, for the entire region and quite honestly, for the entire state.”

Gardner Says that in addition to the $1.7 million for the construction of the first-of-their-type heater prototypes, the state and the port authority’s expansion that accommodates the new system cost an additional $10 million.

Two years ago, according to international trade monitoring groups, the EU purchased nearly $685 million in wood-based fuel products from the U.S. — mostly from the southeastern states.