Massena wood pellet plant setting production records and still can’t keep up with demand
Saturday, November 15, 2014 - 8:29 am

By CRAIG FREILICH

MASSENA – The Curran Renewable Energy wood pellet plant is running at capacity and can’t keep up with demand in its sixth year of operation.

Curran is producing about 27 percent more pellets this year than last, but the production facility began this season without any surplus inventory due to the long stretch of cold weather last spring, according to co-owner Pat Curran. That has meant some retailers have had to wait to receive their shipments of pellets.

“It was a unique situation,” Curran said. “Winter lasted into April, and then fear continued sales right all this year, so there was no surplus. In our sixth year, this is the first time we’re sold out,” he said.

“Part of what I think happened this year is consumers who ran out of pellets and who had the cash bought enough so that it wouldn’t happen again,” and that diminished the chance to build up supplies for pellet stove users for this winter.

Production has been rising all along at the pellet plant at 20 Commerce Dr., east of Main Street and south of the Raquette River

100,000 Tons of Pellets

Curran said the plant is running “12 months, seven days a week, except for breakdowns and maintenance and a couple of holidays.

“We’re on pace to produce 100,000 tons of pellets this year. That’s the most the place can produce, and it’s 24,000 tons more than last year.”

In the first years of pellet-making, “usually by May or June, we would slow down to four days a week because inventory would be full and cash would be low” as warmer weather cut people’s needs, but demand this year has kept the plant at capacity.

“From day one, Lowe’s, Tractor Supply and Home Depot have taken over 50 percent” of production.

He said that at least 90 percent of the pellets his plant makes are distributed in the U.S., and the rest goes to Canada.

This year, “Tractor Supply ordered early and got 15,000 tons, bought and paid for, and it went into their inventory – 10,000 tons into a warehouse in Watervliet and 5,000 tons at a Curran warehouse here.

“Situations like that give us cash flow to continue production,” Curran said.

Big Boxes Allow Growth

“Without the big box stores operations like mine couldn’t keep the price even. They have allowed the market to grow.”

Home Hardware in Canada “didn’t get their orders in early enough,” so they are looking elsewhere. “We’re doing our best to supply everyone,” but demand has been such that those who hadn’t ordered early enough are not getting deliveries even as the cold weather starts.

In addition to many local dealers such as Summer Haven and Agway in Potsdam, they also sell to retail customers who go to the plant. “Right from day one, I have sold by the bag or by the ton to consumers, but I encourage them to go to local dealers.

“It takes the efficiency out of the whole thing when you have to drive back and forth for a few bags.

“But we do our very best to accommodate both.”

Sales to Fort Drum

Curran says he is also selling close to 70,000 tons of low-grade fiber to the ReEnergy biomass generator – converted from coal – at Fort Drum. “That’s mostly bark and twigs. What that plant allows us to make is a cleaner pellet” for pellet stove users.

He said the margins are small, “but we’re happy to be at the point where the plant can be at capacity and sell” all of the pellets he makes.

But he said he is not considering expansion at this point. “No one knows how a winter will be” and he doesn’t want to caught with a huge surplus.

He does have an idea, though, that might permit him to run at full capacity all the time: a “strategic pellet reserve.”

“The state and federal government should consider a strategic pellet reserve, similar to the strategic oil reserve, and we could avoid situations like this in the future,” he said.

Any surpluses a producer has could go into the reserve, until that’s full.

“In order to keep pellets part of the heating system, they should be rationed” in times of emergency, he said.