Nov. 21—The site of the former Great Northern paper mill in Millinocket could get new life producing industrial-grade wood pellets that would be sent by rail to Searsport for shipment and sale overseas, under a proposal announced Monday.
If developed as planned, the One North FPC plant would become Maine’s first facility to export wood pellets, which are burned in Europe and Asia as an energy source with less climate-changing emissions than coal and fossil fuels.
The Millinocket site was the home of the Great Northern Paper Co. pulp and paper facility, which was over 100 years old when it shuttered in 2014. Highland Carbon Solutions of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, has agreed to a collaborative development of the wood pellet production facility at the site.
Our Katahdin, the nonprofit group working on economic development in the Millinocket area, is making plans for the forest products campus and a transportation corridor from the site to Searsport. The campus would be anchored by the wood-pellet facility. But the project can’t go forward without upgraded, expanded rail infrastructure between the production facilities and the deep-water port.
The railway improvement project, led by the Maine Department of Transportation and NBM Railway, is scheduled to begin design and permitting in 2023, with construction anticipated to begin in 2024. Our Katahdin is partnering with the Maine DOT and others to submit a $56.8 million rail improvement application to the Federal Railroad Administration in support of the proposed development. The application will leverage millions of dollars in matching funds.
“Without expanded rail capacity,” Sean DeWitt, president of Our Katahdin, said in a statement, “the One North FPC would not be possible. The rail project greatly expands the state’s ability to facilitate bulk transport of goods, from points of production to oceanic shipping terminals.”
The One North FPC pellet mill and associated timber-related industrial development will process biomass from the area as well as forestry residual materials from existing industries across the state, providing new markets for the industry.
“The One North Forest Products Campus and rail corridor will send Maine-manufactured wood pellets across the globe,” Gov. Janet Mills said in a statement, “creating good-paying jobs in Millinocket, bolstering the forest products supply chain across rural Maine, and further positioning Maine’s forest products industry as a leader in meeting the world’s growing need for clean and sustainable energy sources.”
Maine has a handful of pellet mills that produce wood pellets for domestic heating in stoves and boilers. But producing larger industrial-grade pellets for use in overseas power plants and factories would be a new step.
Plants in the Southeast already ship overseas, out of ports such as Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia. That production has been in particularly high demand as the invasion of Ukraine has prompted European customers to back out of Russian energy sources, according to William Strauss, president of FutureMetrics, a global wood pellet consulting firm based in Bethel.
“Pellets are so short in Europe and so high-priced, that brokers and traders are in a frenzy,” Strauss said recently.
The 106.5-mile rail corridor between Millinocket and Searsport is owned by NBM Railways and Canadian Pacific Railway. The tracks would be used to transport pellets in specialty, bulk-transport rail cars from the One North campus in Millinocket to Sprague’s Searsport terminal for export to Europe.
“The Mack Point terminal in Searsport is a versatile and well-equipped marine cargo and rail terminal that connects Maine’s forest products to global markets. Improving the rail corridor from Millinocket to Searsport compliments the investments made by the State of Maine over the last few decades at the Port of Searsport and will directly benefit Maine people and businesses,” said Matt Burnes, executive director of the Maine Port Authority.
If all goes as planned, the mill and rail line are expected to be in operation by 2026.