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Making the "perfect pellet"

New wood pellet plant brings jobs — and hope — to Barnstead

THIS MASSIVE, computer-controlled hopper system, shipped to Barnstead from its former location in Wyoming, is the central component in Lakes Region Pellets’ wood pellet-making process. Brendan Berube. (click for larger version)
September 08, 2009
BARNSTEAD — With several hundred tons of pellets on the factory floor awaiting shipment, and more flowing out of its machines by the hour, Lakes Region Pellets, LLC (the region's first wood pellet production facility) is on-line and on its way to fulfilling the vision of its founders by bringing a ray of hope to a community facing hard times.

Located at the former site of the Timco lumber company in Center Barnstead (which reigned as one of the largest lumber producers in the northeast, and the largest employer in Barnstead, until foreign competition forced its owners to close the doors in 2003), the new pellet plant is poised to resurrect the long-dormant facility and give local residents and business owners, who have been hit hard by the recession, an economic shot in the arm.

Greg True, the company's Executive Vice President, Chief Operating Officer, and co-founder, and a former Timco employee himself, said between requests for help from a newly-hired batch of trainees on the afternoon of Sept. 2 that he was relieved to see the plant up and running after 90 days of round-the-clock work setting up equipment and training employees.

Conducting The Baysider on a tour of the facility, True explained that the process of creating whole wood chips begins with local loggers and foresters, who supply the company with "junk" lumber that cannot be milled.

Lakes Region Pellets, he said, accepts material as small as three inches in length, and will soon be able to accept tree stumps, which can no longer be taken to landfills as of Jan. 1, 2010.

The logs are fed into a DEAL de-barker imported from British Columbia (described by True as the first unit of its kind to be used in the northeastern United States) which strips them of bark, and are then ground up into a fine pulp and mixed to create what True called the company's signature "blend."

Once the raw material has been mixed, he explained, it is hauled from the storage building over to a computer-controlled hopper system shipped to Barnstead from Wyoming, which sorts the material.

Pieces measuring three inches or smaller in diameter, True said, are fed into one bin, while oversized material is placed in a separate bin for further milling.

Properly-sized material, he explained, is then fed into a large drying drum that heats it to a temperature ranging from 1,500 to 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit.

Explaining that the dryer unit is currently fueled by a mixture of propane and wood, True said one of the upgrades he hopes to make is the conversion to a new heating system powered by waste from the grinding process.

After the drying process is completed, he explained, the material passes through a tunnel where it is cooled to a temperature of around 600 degrees Fahrenheit and fed into a series of three pellet machines, two of which are capable of producing two tons of pellets per hour, while the third (referred to as "Big Green" by the staff) is capable of producing up to seven tons per hour at maximum capacity.

The pellets, which emerge from the machines at a temperature of 220 degrees Fahrenheit, are fed into an elevator that carries them up to a large sifting and cooling area with a built-in screen that captures any undesirable material and drops the pellets back down into the plant to be bagged and readied for shipment.

While the company currently produces around 30 tons of pellets per day, True said he has high hopes that once the remaining hiccups in the process have been taken care of, Lakes Region Pellets will be able to purchase the additional equipment necessary to increase production by as much as 150 percent, or 10 tons per hour.

If the company can secure funding to make the necessary upgrades to the Wellons boiler that powers the operation, he explained, the capacity of "Big Green" alone could be increased by as much as 20 percent.

With all three pellet machines operating at maximum capacity, he said, the plant would be capable of producing up to 100 tons of pellets per day, a scenario that would lead to the creation of additional jobs beyond the 21 positions he has already filled, as well as up to 50 ancillary jobs for the foresters, loggers, and truckers that the facility would rely on for raw material.

While Barnstead's Board of Selectmen was able to secure a $500,000 Community Development Block Grant through the Belknap County Economic Development Council in April to cover some of the plant's start-up costs, company and town officials have also been seeking help from local Congressional representatives in lobbying for federal funding, given the Obama administration's support for research into alternative energy sources, such as the closed-loop biomass cogeneration system that powers the plant's operations.

For now, True said, the plant is running 24 hours a day, seven days a week to satisfy the demand for the combustion and bedding pellets it produces — an undertaking nearly two years in the making that he hopes will help a hurting town get back on its feet.

Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or bberube@salmonpress.com

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