Community News | CeTech Engineering

Industry will turn scrap wood into fuel
Macon County wood pellet plant is a first for North Carolina
By Barbara McRae
Macon County will soon be home to a renewable-energy manufacturing plant.

Carolina Wood Pellets LLC has received construction financing for a new plant on US 441 South, between Franklin and Otto, to produce high-density wood pellets for use in home and commercial heating applications and cogeneration electric facilities.

When fully operational, the plant is expected to produce about 80,000 tons of wood pellets each year and to employ 32 fulltime and 12 part-time workers. Operations should begin early in 2009; they will start with a day shift, adding an afternoon shift soon.

The pellets will recycle wood wastes from logging and sawmill operations, construction and demolition projects, pallet reclamation and other wood manufacturing and processing facilities.

Owner Steve Smith, in announcing the project, said, "Congressman Heath Shuler and his staff and Macon Bank have worked with us on this project through all its phases."

Smith also credited the Small Business and Technology Development Center, the Rural Venture Fund, the Natural Capital Investment Fund, the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, the North Carolina Department of Commerce, Smoky Mountain Development Corporation, Cetech Associates PA, the North Carolina Department of Transportation and the Appalachian Regional Commission for helping to move the project from concept to reality.

"We have been very fortunate to have worked side by side with good organizations and great people," Smith said. "It has been a tremendous amount of work, but worth it."

Carolina Wood Pellets will help the local economy by creating jobs and offering an affordable way to heat homes and businesses, he said.

"It's a great thing that a company here is going to be selling locally," Shuler said. He noted that the largest wood-pellet manufacturing plant in the United States recently opened in the Florida Panhandle. That operation, which uses pulpwood, will ship its entire product to Sweden.

Europe - particularly Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Austria and Italy - has led the wood pellets industry. The low price of pelletized wood in comparison with fossil fuels; its environmental advantages; and the development of high-tech combustion devices have encouraged the rapid expansion of the market. For example, from 1992-2001, Swedish consumption increased from 5,000 to 667,000 tons per year.

The United States is catching on fast, particularly in the upper Midwest. But for much of the counry, pellets remain a novelty.

"Western North Carolina is becoming a leader in sustainable energy and 21st century technologies," Shuler said. "Steve Smith and the entire Carolina Wood Pellets team are continuing that work and showing that we can create good jobs while also protecting our environment."

The Macon County plant will be the first manufacturer of wood pellets in North Carolina. Unlike most other U.S. manufacturers, Smith said he intends to market the product locally and regionally.

That will mean lower heating costs for local people this winter, Shuler said.

Smith, who has been working on this project for the last two years, said, "I wake up and pinch myself. It's been a long haul." Everything is running a few months behind because of the complicated paperwork and financing, which finally came through last Friday.

Smith is originally from Marianna in the Florida Panhandle - coincidentally the location of the enormous wood pelleting plant Shuler mentioned. He was living in Michigan in the early 1990s, when he was introduced to the use of wood pellets for fuel.

"I saw my first pellet stove there, purchased one and started using it," he said. He loved the product, but found that pellets are "very hard to come by."

"I want the local people to have access to it," Smith said.

"It's a great project for the community. It will create great jobs and help stabilize the economy," said Jim Wirtz, the company's general manager. Wirtz hails from Central Michigan. He met Smith there about 14 years ago and the two have been fast friends ever since.

Once the operation gets going, Wirtz said, the company will sell pellet fuel appliances along with certified installation. The federal government offers tax incentives to homeowners to help offset the cost of purchasing wood pellet heating appliances.

Wirtz described the appliances as "very advanced and stylish, with most units cleaning themselves and requiring little to no interaction from the homeowner."

The use of wood pellets for home heating can reduce heating costs by as much as 65 percent, industry experts say.

Construction of the Carolina Wood Pellets facility will begin in the next couple of weeks and the company plans to start hiring soon.

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