PHOTO COURTESY OF CHRIS SHARRON
Wood pellets are looking like the next big thing in Oregon’s campaign to create green jobs. Or are they?
First Prineville-based Ochoco Lumber received a $4.9 million stimulus grant through Business Oregon to construct a wood pellet factory in John Day. Then a Redmond start-up named Pacific Pellet announced plans to convert 40,000 tons of scrap wood per year into pellets to heat homes and businesses and eventually fuel everything from schools and hospitals to factories and power plants. Ochoco’s grant will enable it to retain 80 workers and create 11 new jobs, while Pacific Pellet is expected to employ 20 people. Both plants will produce an alternative fuel from a renewable resource that burns with very low emissions.
Of course, that was the claim with ethanol, too. Industry insiders say the last thing the wood pellet industry needs is more production. Three wood pellet plants in Oregon have been shut down recently because of severe oversupply in the market.
Chris Sharron, president of West Oregon Wood Products in Columbia City, has suspended production at both of his mills and laid off 30 workers until the pellets start moving again. “Demand has dried up,” he says.
As with ethanol, skyrocketing fuel prices powered massive speculation in wood pellets, followed by subsidized construction and overcapacity. European Union nations required by law to find new sources of “carbon neutral” energy have been burning more pellets and less coal in their power plants, importing millions of dollars worth of pellets from the U.S. each week. The European market has justified the construction of huge new pellet plants in the Southeast, where production has grown by a factor of 10 over the past five years. But it’s a long road from Central Oregon to Europe.
The market in Oregon has been fickle. Sharron says 2008 was his best year ever, but 2009 was his worst. The state has tried to intervene by offering tax credits for pellet stoves and paying to convert schools to pellet fuel. “We’re trying to take a responsible and efficient approach to growing this demand,” says Matt Krumenauer, a senior policy advisor for the Oregon Department of Energy.
Whether they can grow enough demand to sell 80,000 new tons per year of wood pellets remains to be seen. Mark Stapleton, president of Pacific Pellet, says he is confident the market for pellet stoves will rebound and grow. “We’re not trying to displace anybody,” he says. “We’re just trying to give the consumer more options.”