What's Next For N.H. Timber As Biomass Power Plants Close?

Nov 8, 2019

For the past few decades, New Hampshire's logging industry has been selling its wood scraps to be burned for energy. But now, after two years of failed subsidies, the state’s small biomass power plants are shutting down

It's left the forest products sector with few in-state markets for a lot of low-grade timber -- even as innovative new uses for that wood take root elsewhere in the region.

Editor's note: This is the second half of a two-part series. Read part one: As Dartmouth Tries To Move Away From Fossil Fuels, What Role Will Biomass Play?

In Orford, tree farmer Tom Thomson owns a thousand acres of forest on the side of Mount Cube. His property borders the Appalachian Trail and today, it's in full October splendor. 

Tom Thomson welcomes hikers and snowmobilers onto his tree farm, which includes several bogs and ponds.
Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

"That's a perfect spot to try to find a moose in," Thomson says, looking down a tree-covered hillside at a picturesque bog. "And the colors are just about perfect right there." 

A well-maintained gravel road for hikers and snowmobiles snakes through the trees, past quiet upland ponds and mountain overlooks.

But make no mistake: this is a working forest.

Thomson, the son of former governor Meldrim Thomson, bought it more than 30 years ago from a big paper company. They were moving overseas, leaving mostly low-value, unhealthy trees behind. 

Thomson says restoring this forest into a healthy ecosystem has involved routine harvesting of all kinds of wood. 

"When you plant vegetables in your garden, [if] you just walked away from them … you'd be lucky if they produced hardly at all," he says. "And that's exactly the way it happens in our forest." 

Landowners like Thomson say healthy forest management means clearing dead or broken trees and limbs to let better timber grow. 

In New Hampshire, that so-called junk wood makes up about two-thirds of the volume harvested, and contributes about 10 percent of the revenue, according to industry data. That's not much, but folks like Thomson say it's vital to keeping forests profitable and intact.  

A photo from a 1998 edition of Tree Farmer magazine shows Tom Thomson and his damaged timber after a catastrophic ice storm.
Credit Courtesy Tom Thomson

Thomson was left with a high level of junk wood after the region's catastrophic ice storm in 1998. He's been having it harvested ever since -- but right now, he can't get any loggers to come in. 

"If we had the biomass plants up and running, there wouldn't be any issue," he says. 

The biomass plants are six small woodchip-burning power plants that were built across the state in the 1980s, during an era of oil embargoes and political interest in energy independence. 

Thomson says the plants were the ideal local market for millions of tons of junk wood over the years. 

"Folks went out and mortgaged everything they had to get into that industry," he says. "And now we're faced with -- what do they do with it?"

NEW WOOD TECH, MADE IN MAINE

Across the state border in Orono, Maine, university researchers are looking at just that question. 

A decade ago, Maine's timber and construction industries were hit hard by the recession. But since then, the state's government and its timber and economic advocates have focused heavily on attracting federal and private money to develop new products using wood and wood scraps. 

Wood technologist Ben Herzog works with mass timber and other high-tech wood composites at the University of Maine.
Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

Ben Herzog is a wood technologist at the University of Maine's Advanced Structures and Composites Center.

"This is always kind of interesting to look at," he says, pointing out a wood panel with the school's ubiquitous "Made in Maine" label. "This particle board is 100 percent wood – no formaldehyde, no glue." 

Researchers like Herzog are developing new kinds of wood building materials, like particle board held together with an adhesive that itself is made from wood. This cuts down on the toxic chemicals used to make traditional particle board. 

Another product is called mass timber -- thick, strong wood panels made out of layers of lumber and sometimes woodchips. It's seen as a climate- and city-friendly alternative to steel and concrete.

New Hampshire's first mass timber building is currently going up on the Seacoast.

And that's not all that's going on at UMaine's School of Forest Resources. Its researchers are working with the military to make blast-resistant shelters and portable bridges out of wood. They're combining wood with plastic to make more durable docks and decking. They're crafting huge wind turbine blades out of balsa wood from overseas.

Scientists at the school are even developing and scaling up a chemical process to turn wood scraps into crude oil, distillable into jet fuel, diesel and more.

UMaine wood chemist Amy Luce holds up a bottle of crude oil made from sawdust.
Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

Then there's the cellulose. It's a wood pulp so fine that researchers say its uses are almost endless -- it can feed 3D printers or make insulation, thicken paints and food, make car parts and cell phone screens, or even be used in medicine, to create synthetic bones and nerves. 

Colleen Walker heads the UMaine center focused on nanocellulose and says it's a serious potential alternative to plastic.

They recently got a federal grant through the Northern Border Regional Commission to further explore the commercial possibilities of the material. 

"We like to emphasize that it is nature-made," Walker says. "I just like to say it's always, always been there, but we just learned to extract it and really manipulate it. Because there wasn't really the toolset available in the scientific community to look at the nanoscale before." 

Fossil fuels are also often characterized this way -- as a natural resource, harnessed by science. Why does Walker think it's preferable to get plastic- or oil-like material from wood instead?

"Because it’s renewable," she says. 

That's the biggest environmental argument for making all these products with scraps of wood that would otherwise stay in the forest. They can offset the use of industrial materials like plastic, concrete and steel that do more to drive global warming. 

And most of these wood products continue to hold in their carbon, while the forest they come from regrows, doubling their benefit. 

NEAR-TERM DAMAGE

New Hampshire's economic affairs commissioner, Taylor Caswell, says that this kind of innovation holds promise for the state's timber sector. 

"There is a growing need for technology in that industry, and the workforce development as well," he says. "So all those pieces really flow together, and I do think there's a regional aspect here that we're hoping to be able to really take advantage of." 

Caswell thinks the state will be able to benefit from innovation happening in Maine. And he points to that mass timber building on the Seacoast as an example of what's already going on in New Hampshire.

But New Hampshire's forest economy is still dominated by the classics: saw logs, pulp and paper, wood pellets for home heating, firewood and, still, some biomass.

A log truck travels down Route 101.
Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

And transporting that wood is expensive -- so while new wood markets are growing in neighboring states, some New Hampshire loggers might be priced out of participating. 

Even if they are able to take advantage of those new regional opportunities, or if new wood businesses eventually take root in New Hampshire, it’s not likely to happen for years. 

Wood market consultant Eric Kingsley is worried the changes won’t come fast enough.

He says the loss of the state's biomass plants doesn't just jeopardize around a thousand biomass jobs. It could devastate the state's timber supply chain, he says -- loggers, truckers, equipment retailers and more.

"It's going to disappear before there's a chance to rebound," Kingsley says. "So we're certainly going to see a loss of harvesting infrastructure that will have to be rebuilt when new markets are identified."

Tom Thomson, the tree farmer, hopes it doesn't come to that.

He emphasizes that timber industry affects more than just the North Country, and says the state can and should have two priorities at once: building new markets and sustaining its biomass industry.

"We have the renewable resource -- we just need the markets," he says. "The landowners need the markets. If they don't have the markets, they're not going to hold onto their land."

Tom Thomson on his tree farm in Orford.
Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

Instead, he says, landowners could sell for other uses, like housing developments or cell towers.

This could leave the state with smaller, more fragmented forests -- more vulnerable to further development. 

New Hampshire is the second most-forested state in the country, after Maine. And the vast majority of the Granite State's forests are privately owned -- meaning wildlife corridors and recreational trails rely on many different landowners preserving and opening their forests. 

Shifts in the state's timber market may not lead to widespread, permanent clear-cutting.

But researchers say maintaining all the forests we have will be critical to slow the effects of climate change.