CONCORD, New Hampshire — A new plant that converts wood to power is set to begin producing electricity in mid-December.
State and company officials predict the Burgess BioPower plant in Berlin will inject a $25-million-a-year boost into the North Country, hard hit as its half-dozen paper mills have closed in the face of rising costs and overseas competition. The $275 million plant is expected to create about 40 full-time jobs plus spinoff jobs for foresters, loggers and haulers.
The plant will produce 75 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 75,000 homes. It will use about 750,000 tons of "biomass" a year, burning just about every part of a tree that can't be turned into a board.
"That means quite a few people in the woods will be very busy," said Scott Tranchemontagne, a spokesman for Burgess BioPower.
Tranchemontagne said the facility is complete and workers are currently testing the systems. When work started in 2011, company officials estimated the plant would go online by the end of this year.
State officials note there is a growing market for biomass as commercial and industrial users like schools, hospitals and nursing homes look to wean themselves off more expensive oil heating.
"When you have a facility that's going to save half a million dollars a year in heating costs, that's phenomenal," said Sarah Smith, forest industry specialist for the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension.
There are currently more than 85 facilities using wood for heat and more are in the pipeline, Smith said.
The power will be sold under a 20-year agreement to the Public Service Company of New Hampshire, the state's largest utility.
Catherine Corkery, chapter director of the New Hampshire Sierra Club, said the environmental advocacy group is still concerned about the plant's effect on air quality, the amount of carbon produced by burning the wood and the number of vehicle miles traveled to transport the raw materials.
"If it's coming from Canada, or upstate New York or Maine, it sort of defeats the purpose," she said.
"I think that there are definite benefits to wood burning," she said. "We look at resource impact and the sustainability of that impact and also if there are impacts on wildlife and the habitat."
The plant is being built on the site of the defunct Fraser Paper pulp mill, which closed in 2006 after 100 years, leaving many people out of work and Berlin without a main industry. Construction of the new plant employed some 600 workers, 200 more than initially projected.
Charlie Niebling, an energy consultant with Innovative Natural Resource Solutions LLC, said wood is a good fit in New Hampshire.
"People have been heating with wood in this state for as long as it's been a state and for thousands of years before that," he said.