Fueling green energy in New Brunswick

New mill will produce versatile hay pellets

(Published in The Atlantic Co-operator, March/April 2013, Vol. 79, No. 2)

A New Brunswick co-operative is ready to start making hay pellets that can be used for everything from maple syrup production to animal bedding to watering plants.

The Chaleur Green Energy Co-operative’s new pellet mill in Saint-Quentin, N.B. will be up March-April coverand running this spring, says founding member Hans Bouma.

“We’ve had a big membership drive in Saint-Quentin,” he said. “From the initial four members, we now have 36 members, and all new members are from the Saint Quentin area.”

The group secured $215,000, half the mill’s start-up cost, in funding from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency in October. An additional 30 per cent came from the Northern New Brunswick Economic Development Investment Fund, and the final 20 per cent was raised privately, which was a condition of the ACOA funding.

Bouma, a longtime member of dairy and grocery co-operatives, said the co-operative model seemed to be a good fit for this green energy project.

“I’ve been exposed to co-ops a long time and I find the system works well,” he said. “It’s more advantageous to the people involved rather than corporations.”

Each of the four founding members brought an area of expertise.

“Two of them were woodlot owners,” he said. “One was a retired boiler operator for the high school, so he had some knowledge of heating. Another person was a retired heavy duty mechanic. The third person was an engineer, and I am a retired dairy farmer and also a woodlot owner.”

After incorporating in 2009, the group began a series of feasibility studies.

“Hay pellets are a renewable resource on an annual basis, rather than wood, which is renewable on a 50- to 60-year cycle,” Bouma said. “Wood pellets take a lot of energy inputs, in that wood is 50 per cent water and it has to be dried. That’s an energy input. And then it has to be chipped, which is another big energy input.”

The co-operative gained momentum last year when it began selling pellets to a Fredericton school to heat its hot-water boiler.

Because pellet-making equipment can produce hay pellets, wood pellets or a hybrid of the two, the co-operative wanted to set up in an area where both hay and wood were readily accessible. They found it in Saint-Quentin, a northern farming community of 2,200 about 100 km east of Edmundston.

“We found there was a tremendous amount of land that’s not being used or being under-utilized,” he said. “Especially, a lot of beef farmers have gone out of business because the beef prices had been very depressed. And a lot of guys who have gone out of business, they still have their equipment to make bales, and they still have their land and places for storage.”

The pellet mill will operate out of a building at the North American Forest Products sawmill, which has available space after reducing the size of its operation, Bouma said.

“And, should we wish to make wood pellets and/or hay/wood combination pellets, there will be sawdust available and there will be shavings available that can be ground up into sawdust,” he said. “So it’s a very good place for us to set up.”

Saint-Quentin is known as the maple syrup capital of Atlantic Canada, and Bouma said hay pellets would be a cost-effective energy alternative in maple syrup production.

“Hay pellets can produce the same BTUs as oil at about 40 per cent of the cost of oil, or even less,” he said. “So that’s a tremendous saving.”

Bouma said that while the long-term goal is to produce hay pellets for energy, there are many potential markets for the pellets, which will be used initially as animal bedding.

“We’re still thinking about producing hay pellets as a fuel source,” he said. “However, it has become clear that an easier market to penetrate is going to be the bedding market. The equine market has accepted our pellets quite enthusiastically. I have been using it here on my own farm and we find that they work very well in beds.”

Bouma said the pellets can also be used as a weed suppressant similar to mulch, and could have an innovative application in gardening.

“These hay pellets absorb roughly three and a half times their weight in water, which is quite considerable,” he said. “Putting a layer of pellets in a flowerpot and soaking it, it would allow people to have their flowers, their hanging baskets, and go away for a week or two weeks, and they probably would not run out of water, so that would be very helpful.”

The mill in Saint-Quentin will employ 10 people when it is fully operational. Bouma said the group is already looking to the future and sees potential for additional pellet mills in Bathurst, Sackville and Woodstock.

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