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Pat Curran is on the cutting edge of a new and challenging energy revolution. Photo: Jasmine Wallace
Pat Curran is on the cutting edge of a new and challenging energy revolution. Photo: Jasmine Wallace

Massena pellet mill at the forefront of renewable energy industry

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This week, North Country Public Radio has been taking another look at how renewable and local energy might reshape the region's economy.

State and local leaders are making big investments in everything from hydro to biomass. And more and more families and businesses are slowly converting away from fossil fuels, adding solar panels or small wind turbines. But big hurdles remain. Start-up costs for green energy technology are steep. Government incentives can be confusing. Many consumers are sticking with natural gas and oil, at least for the time being.

One of the men on the front line of this turbulent energy revolution is Pat Curran. He opened Curran Renewable Energy in Massena three years ago with $11 million in support from the St. Lawrence County Industrial Development Agency. He makes burnable wood pellets, supplying some big institutions, including Clarkson University in Potsdam and the Wild Center in Tupper Lake.

Wood pellets are cheaper than fuel oil and much better for the environment. But Curran has struggled to find enough customers to keep his plant operating. Jasmine Wallace has our profile.

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The pellet mill at Curran Renewable Energy in Massena. Photo: The Wild Center via Flickr, some rights reserved

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Jasmine Wallace
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Pat Curran takes me on a tour of his plant, where huge piles of wood chips from North Country forests are converted into what looks like little rabbit pellets.

“These are the pellet mills right here. Of course, they’re not running right now because we’re loading this load of sawdust. We have three mills. When we built this plant, we set it up for a fourth mill and we just haven’t had the financial wherewithal to put in the fourth mill. Hopefully one day we will," said Curran. He is a soft-spoken man, and he wears jeans and a plaid shirt. As we walk, he occasionally stops to check in with his staff or direct a shipping truck.

He’s a believer; he thinks renewable energy can revitalize the North Country’s timber industry and create new jobs. But right from the start, his company has faced a glut in the pellet market. Curran says that too many people started making this kind of energy without there being enough customers willing to convert their homes or businesses to pellet heat.

“It’s been a struggle. It’s been a big struggle. And the biggest problem is being new on the block, anticipating that there was going to be a huge market for the pellets and shortly after getting going, realizing that the first wave of this pellet business, when we arrived in it, was more of a hepped up wave,' said Curran. According to him, growing the market for pellets has been difficult. People who have access to low cost municipal electric or natural gas aren’t likely to switch over to pellets as a source of fuel. Firewood, fuel oil, and propane are his biggest competitors. Because of low demand, he’s had to scale back production.

“We were optimistic that this plant would run at 75% the first year. You know, we really ran at about 11% the first year. Part of it was start-up, and the real one was just we didn’t have the market to sell into,” said Curran. "We were running at seven days a week until about mid-March. Inventory started to rise to a point that I realized that if we kept going at the pace of production, we would have been shutting down the plant completely by the end of April. So we went to five days a week, and we’re presently running five days a week. Our inventory is at capacity. Last year we produced 59% of the plant’s capacity at 59,000 tons.”

On the day I visit, mountains of wood chips sit outside the factory in the sun. The strong scent of pine hangs in the air, and bulldozers transport bucketfuls of the chips across the expanse of pavement behind the factory building. Everything inside the factory is mechanized, the workers dwarfed by machines.

We watch as the huge, yellow arm of a robot pluck up the bags of pellets in its two rows of metal teeth and stack them carefully onto a wooden pallet. Curran said, “If you turn around you can watch this robot fill the pallet there. You’ll notice also on the bag that we have a window on the sides and on the front. When we first started making pellets three years ago, the bag manufacturer convinced us not to do anything like that. They wanted a completely sealed bag so you didn’t see the product. But after a while, realizing that we know what our product is, we might just as well lay it out so the public can see it before they buy it.”

This is important because one way that Curran hopes to compete in the future is by making really high quality pellets. That means that he doesn’t use dirty or contaminated wood to make his energy pellets. Unlike some companies, he also produces pellets that hold consistent amounts of energy, so they burn at a dependable rate.

“We do our very best to make sure that the pellet is always the same and do whatever we can to make sure that this product is going to be equal to the same as a person picked from us a year ago, and we’re hoping that this will continue to help us sell our product," said Curran. In the last month, Curran has found a couple of new markets, selling to the Lowe’s Home Improvement Chain and to a Canadian company called Belfry.

He’s also started selling the pellets to livestock owners, who use them on the floors of their stables. However, he acknowledges that his company has yet to find a stable and sustainable level of production. Last winter, the factory had so many orders, Curran almost ran out of pellets. But this summer, Curran kept production high and now he has more bags of pellets than he can sell.

“We’ve built our inventory and we ran out of cash. Or I shouldn’t say ran out of cash, ran down on the cash to the point where unless product’s selling, you can’t continue producing. So it’s a real tough one, and I’m sure no matter what energy you’re into, you run into similar problems like this," Curran said.

Pellet producers in the U.S. face a lot of big questions that are out of their control. High oil prices might drive more customers to think about wood-burning stoves. But that’s not a sure thing. And in the U.S., most states don’t have good regulations or guidelines for pellet stove technology. That means that people are often confused about the best furnaces to buy. The best furnaces are also expensive.

Curran said, “It’s just, it’s very, very slow to happen. The amount of jobs that could be created would be tremendous. And really, they’re homegrown jobs. You’re not importing these jobs, and these jobs could be annual jobs for decades to come, until maybe something better came along.”

One bit of good news is that Curran’s business has plenty of raw materials. He says that there is a lot of forest in our region to be harvested,  He also hopes that renewable energy will replace the paper industry in filling one timber industry niche: buying up low-quality wood that’s not suitable for lumber. He said, “We happen to be fortunate enough to be in a part of the country where there’s a lot of good people, and a lot of good people that are willing to work, and we’re flush with raw materials. And as much as sometimes we don’t care for the fact of all the water we have around here, the water is our future, and the water will grow the trees. From here on out, we have to be stewards, and the best thing we can do is be the best steward and hope like heck we can grow a good, domestic market for the product that we produce.”

So Curran is sort of a pioneer in a tough industry. A lot of people think biomass and wood pellets will be part of our energy future. But this is a time when everything in New York’s energy world is changing, from the debate over natural gas fracking to the possibility that far more Canadian electricity could be imported from the north. Curran’s efforts to keep his company alive reflect the hope that renewable and locally-made fuel will be a part of the mix over the long term.

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