Loggers will miss Concord Steam as a market for wood chips

  • A truck filled with wood chips pulls up to the Concord Steam plant off of Pleasant Street in Concord on Friday. Photos by GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Wood chips flow out of the delivery truck at Concord Steam on Pleasant Street in Concord.

Monitor staff
Published: 7/30/2016 11:24:18 PM

There is one group that’s really going to miss Concord’s unique wood-powered steam heating system as it shuts down over the next year or two: Loggers.

“It’s a link in the chain – and you know what happens when you take a link out,” said Marlo Herrick, who owns Hopkinton Forestry and LandClearing with her husband, David.

Hopkinton Forestry is one of several land-clearing companies that for years has chipped low-grade wood like treetops and limbs at logging sites and sold the chips to Concord Steam, which burns around 50,000 tons of such chips each year to power the state’s only municipal district heating system.

“We usually take them 10 to 15 loads in the winter, five to six in the summer” at 30 tons a load, said Herrick.

But not for much longer. Concord Steam Corp., which has struggled with financial and equipment issues for years, recently agreed to be bought by Liberty Utilities for $1.9 million. If regulators approve and all goes through, the plant on Pleasant Street could shut as early as May, forcing roughly 180 Concord buildings to find alternative heat sources.

Concord Steam isn’t a huge part of Hopkinton Forestry’s business, since chips delivered to large power plants from the landing area of a logging operation are the lowest-profit product of land clearing, much lower than sawlogs or firewood.

Over the years, Concord Steam has paid between $20 to $30 a ton for chips, a price that has stayed “relatively consistent,” said Concord Steam Vice President Mark Salzman.

“In the grand scheme of wood usage in northern New England, that’s a drop in the bucket – but it’s not a drop in the bucket to the long-standing supply relationships that Concord Steam has,” said Charlie Niebling, a consultant with Innovative Natural Resource Solutions in Boscawen and longtime observer of the region’s wood industry.

But the loss of Concord Steam as a customer will be painful to loggers beyond the immediate financial hit, for a couple of reasons.

For one thing, it comes alongside the collapse of another major market, the regional pulp industry.

A decline in the market for the glossy, coated paper used in magazines and catalogs that has long been a mainstay of paper mills in New England has led to mills shutting throughout the region, especially in Maine. That has sharply curtailed the market for lower-quality wood sold to paper mills, making the biomass-energy market all that more important.

For another thing, location matters. It costs a lot to truck 30 tons of wood chips every extra mile, so a replacement customer like Eversource’s Schiller Station plant in Newington or the Burgess Biomass plant in Berlin is much less profitable to central New Hampshire loggers.

“Concord Steam was very beneficial from the fact that they’re close. Other markets are 40 to 50 miles away, and that’s a significant factor in running timber operations,” said Hunter Carbee, a procurement forester for North County Procurement, a firm that connects chip providers like Hopkinton Forestry with customers like Concord Steam. “In the wintertime, when there’s high demand, (foresters) could truck more loads per day.”

The details of the transition away from Concord Steam are still being worked out, and biomass energy advocates hope that it won’t be a total loss for them.

It won’t be easy for buildings – either individual buildings or multiple adjacent buildings owned by the same entity, such as the city’s downtown complex or the Hugh Gallen State Office Park – to change systems from heat arriving via large underground pipes to heat produced by some other source. Chances are for most systems that source will be a new boiler in the basement fired by natural gas, which would be Liberty Utility’s preference, or another fuel.

Niebling thinks that for some Concord Steam customers, that fuel could be biomass, either in wood chips or processed wood pellets.

“Pellets are more expensive than natural gas but chips are not on a heat-output basis, and with the PUC offering robust rebate for commercial facilities for pellets, it’s a viable option,” Niebling said. “Owners of buildings ought to be at least exploring the use of biomass, because they’ll be living with it for 20, 30 years. … This is your decision point, you ought to be exploring all your options.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

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