Are west county’s ears burning? State study looks at wood availability in west county for potential wood-pellet plant

  • This map shows the area of potential wood harvest for a regional wood pellet or wood chip plant. A study and feasibility report will look at both the red area, a group of 21 towns (including 11 in Franklin County), as well as a slightly larger area including surrounding towns in yellow. Massachusetts Dept. of Conservation and Recreation

Recorder Staff
Monday, March 28, 2016

As schools in the Mohawk Trail Regional School District look at the possibility of replacing their old heating systems with pellet-burning boilers, a state-funded study is weighing the potential of developing a wood-pellet or wood chip plant as part of a 21-town Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership Project encompassing 11 western Franklin County towns.

A wood pellet factory imagined for the region that also includes 10 Berkshire County towns could draw on an estimated supply of 193,000 green tons that could be sustainably harvested from low-grade wood from privately owned woodland around the region, according to the first of several phases of a Renewable Wood Heat Sustainable Supply Study being conducted for the state Department of Energy Resources.

The analysis concluded that up to 429,000 tons of raw low-grade wood might be accessible in a slightly larger region beyond the 21 towns, and because of forest growth, that could increase to more than 700,000 tons a year by 2035.

The analysis, being done by Antrim, N.H.-based Innovative Natural Resource Solutions Inc., used “ultraconservative assumptions” to arrive at an estimate of low-grade wood, not including dead or dying trees, which would be left in place, said Charles Niebling, a partner in the firm and one of three presenters at a Franklin Regional Planning Board meeting last week.

This phase of the study, which simply looks at the potential supply of wood around the 21-town area, as well as a slightly larger region expanded by a ring of surrounding towns, will be followed by a feasibility report, a business plan, a siting study, along with an examination of the potential economic impact on the region and exploration of the impact on emissions including greenhouse gas emissions, explained Charles Levesque, INRS president.

The study complements a state-funded planning project being done by the Franklin County and Berkshire regional planning departments that looks at special designation by the state and U.S. Forest Service to offer money and technical assistance for forest-based economic development.

The effort would promote sustainable forestry practices on privately owned land, research on new forest-related manufacturing technologies, and conservation of woodlands in an area that includes 11 Franklin County towns: Conway, Ashfield, Shelburne, Buckland, Colrain, Leyden, Charlemont, Heath, Hawley, Rowe and Monroe, along with 10 towns in Berkshire County. The effort in the 21-town area, 81 percent of which is forested, is aimed at boosting the economy with state and federal grants to help preserve woodlands, manage timber, encourage tourism and forestry industries, according to the COG.

The forest inventory analysis, which Levesque said could potentially lead to siting a factory to make wood pellets or “refined, semi-dry wood chips” for schools, town halls, fire stations and possibly other markets in the region, is only the first step at looking at such a facility, he cautioned.

And although a 25-ton to 40-ton-per-year plant was projected by Niebling as what might be the right scale for this region, Franklin Regional Planning Director Margaret Sloan emphasized later, “This is only the first phase,” looking at the sustainable supply for providing wood-based heating for public buildings, and potentially a wood-pellet manufacturing plant. “We’re not going to know the size that would be recommended until the next pieces are done. Does it make sense to have a facility that’s scaled to demand for locally sourced wood?”

Before that can be determined, she said, the study could look at how much demand exists in the region.

Such a plant, said Eric Kingsley, INRS vice president, could also draw on wood waste that’s now being discarded from road and utility projects, as well as residue from sawmills and wood products businesses around a region slightly larger than the 21-town region. He estimated that there might be as much as 5,000 tons a year from three sawmills, and said a “community-scale wood pellet plant would need to be close to both the source of the wood and the market for the wood products, and that it would need to be well-engineered, with enough working capital to sustain it through periods of slow demand, on appropriately zoned land.

Sloan told planning board members who raised questions about wood harvesting methods and percentages of material that would be left in the woods for soil and forest health that the proposed woodland partnership would have a research component with Forest Service and state DCR involvement to research and demonstrate sustainable forestry practices, a revolving loan fund to help develop forestry businesses as well as a visitor center to enhance recreation and tourism activity.

On the Web:

You can reach Richie Davis at: rdavis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 269