Cooperating for Biomass

Sawmills on Prince of Wales Island in Alaska formed a co-op and plan to build a pellet and biobrick mill.
By Lisa Gibson | April 29, 2011

Concerned about the liability posed by piles of sawdust at their operations, six sawmills near Thorne Bay on Prince of Wales Island in southeast Alaska have formed a cooperative and proposed a wood pellet and biobrick facility that would use their wood waste.

The Prince of Wales Biofuels Cooperative is currently developing a business plan to present to the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, hoping to receive $4 million to $5 million for the project, according to Ralph Porter, co-op member and owner/operator of Porter Lumber. The exact cost and timeline for operation has not been nailed down, he adds. “We’d like to be operational right now, but we’re still trying to find financing for the whole thing. When the money comes, I think within about nine months we’ll be in operation.”

The cooperative was formally incorporated at the end of July 2009. Criteria stipulate that members must be a wood fiber producer and an Alaska business owner, according to Karen Petersen, University of Alaska Extension Program assistant. The university helped form the co-op on multiple levels, assisting with research and answering questions from the potential members before its inception.

If approved for funding, the biomass plant will be located on a nine-acre site leased from the city of Thorne Bay. The plant will need about 24,000 green tons of biomass annually and may also use residue from forest management, depending on agreements with the U.S. Forest Service, Petersen says. “Right now, nothing happens with biomass here,” she says, adding that the Forest Service and the co-op are looking into logistics of residue harvesting together. “There’s been a big education step up here for everyone and they’re probably looking more toward doing a stewardship contract and collecting debris off of the ground.” About one-third of the biomass will be burned on-site to heat the plant and dry the material.

And with the rest of that wood, the biomass plant would produce 8,000 tons of solid biomass fuel, half pellets and half biobricks, according to the current business plan. “There’s definitely a market for both,” Porter says. The U.S. Coast Guard has plans to install biomass district heating systems at its Alaskan bases in Ketchikan and Sitka, and will need at least 4,000 tons of pellets, he says. In addition, the U.S. Forest Service is installing two biomass boilers in its Ketchikan location, as well as one in Sitka. The biobricks will most likely be used in residential appliances, as they are cheaper than firewood and ease the need for wood chopping and hauling. “I don’t think we’re going to have any problems selling all the pellets we can possibly produce,” Porter says.

Down the road, the co-op could contact the remaining six or seven sawmills on Prince of Wales Island and negotiate terms for the use of their wood waste, too, he says, adding that the model is great for any area with a number of wood processing facilities dealing with on-site waste.

“The reason I think this is going to work well is all of these sawmill operations are really small,” Petersen says. They all saw less than 1 million board feet and are not producing enough sawdust to operate their own pellet facilities, she adds. “Unifying it, now they’ve got enough to make it worth their while.”