From the Ground Up

New York pellet producer Curran Renewable Energy and its associated businesses have deep roots in forestry, and long-term plans for further growth.
By Anna Simet | March 07, 2019

Just about two miles from the Canadian border in northern New York, nestled along the St. Lawrence River between two tributaries, is the small town of Massena. Home to roughly 10,000 people—less than half the population in 1960—Massena has experienced the same economic depression that so many industrial towns have over the past several decades, a result of widespread decline of U.S. manufacturing.

While some of the largest job providers there have shut down business—most recently, aluminum manufacturer Alcoa—there are still employers with roots deep in the ground and holding, businesses that have pivoted and strategized to keep people working and maintain their livelihoods.

One of those employers is Curran Renewable Energy.  Founder and CEO Pat Curran is quick to relay the success of the company to his employees. “None of us behind the business are anything without them,” says Curran. “I really care an awful lot about the individuals who work for us—there are lot of great people who make all of this work.”

By “this all,” Curran refers to not only the 100,000-ton-plus capacity pellet plant the company operates in Massena, but also Curran Logging and Seaway Timber Harvesting, businesses that are owned among Curran and his brothers Tim and Lee, and are strategically connected. Employing roughly 100, the Currans built their businesses from the ground up, starting out with just a one-ton truck and some chainsaws that belonged to his father, Curran says.

Learning the Trade
“A lot of people start out doing something when they are young just to work, and the next thing they know, decades have gone by.” And a lot has happened in those decades. Curran says early on, he and his brothers endured fluctuating forestry markets, but always found other work until things leveled off. “We did other things to stay alive, and eventually, the markets came back and kept growing with the timber business,” he says.

Fast-forward to 1984, and Curran Logging was founded, followed by Seaway Timber Harvesting in 1990. Today, about 30 percent of what the businesses harvest comes from company-owned land, the remainder is either federal, state or private. “We have an aggregate side of the business as well, that deals in stone, sand, gravel, we run most of that through Curran Logging,” Curran says. Seaway harvests around 350,000 tons of wood chips annually, delivering to a diverse customer base. “On the timber side, we supply to paper mills such as International paper in Ticonderoga, New York, Domtar in Windsor, Quebec and Fortress Paper in Thurso, Quebec,” Curran says. “We also supply ReEnergy, a biomass power plant in Watertown, New York, with low-grade wood chips, several different sawmills throughout New York and Quebec, totaling between five and seven million board feet annually. A portion of the 350,000 tons supplies our pellet mill, both high-grade clean chips for pellet production, and lower-grade wood chips that are burned in our furnace to create heat.”

To give some context as to how much waste is generated from harvesting operations, about 25 percent of the annual harvest is of low quality, and goes to markets like ReEnergy or CRE’s pellet plant. With the goal of utilizing as much of the tree as possible, pellet production seemed like a natural fit years ago. But if the timing had been slightly different, Curran says he doesn’t believe the plant would have come to fruition. The idea was conceived after a paper mill customer in Ontario closed, pushing the Curran businesses into markets much farther from the Massena area, such as a Domtar paper mill in Quebec, he explains. “That’s been a great market for us, but we’re 200 miles one way, so the truck doesn’t have a lot of life other than just one trip a day,” Curran says. “We have plenty of fiber in our region, and back in 2007 during the energy crisis, pellets were beginning to become quite popular.”

CRE achieved financing for the pellet plant in December 2007. “I don’t think we would have been able to borrow that money in 2008,” Curran says. “And now, we’re now in our 10th year of production.”

Though familiar with the fiber link of the supply chain, the Currans weren’t familiar with making pellets, and realized they’d need some outside expertise to learn the ropes. “We didn’t know anything about pellet production, but we hired a guy from Wisconsin—John Lundell of Energy Unlimited—and he ended up putting the facility together for us. John had an employee with extensive wood pellet production experience, who stayed on with us through the start-up phase for six months, and taught us how to make quality wood pellets. Today, Plant Manager Dan Measheaw manages the daily operations and maintenance.”

 There is quite an art to producing wood pellets, Curran adds. “It’s not just a case of throwing wood fiber in one end, and the pellets come out the other end. And a lot of this you don’t learn until you’ve made mistakes.”

Besides using its lowest-grade forest residuals to make a product that diversifies the company’s revenues streams, what’s particularly unique about Curran is operating a pellet plant that 100 percent self-supplies its feedstock, an unconventional business model within the U.S. wood pellet industry.

Not having to rely on a fiber supplier has benefits, one of which is that there isn’t a question regarding quality, or unforeseen delays. “You always know what’s going to come in, where it is, and what the quality is,” Curran says. “If you really care about your end-user, in this case the domestic pellet customer who will burn it in a stove, you will pay attention to your feedstock. It has to be clean coming in. If it’s industrial grade, you can get away with a little more ash.”

Boosting equipment utilization is another perk. “We’ve run into situations where some of our trucks might run a couple of loads of fiber to our wood yard, and then the chips will be reloaded and hauled to Domtar’s Windsor paper mill, with enough time left to go back to the bush and pick up another load. That will be brought to the pellet plant in Massena, and after dumping, the truck is only five minutes away from where it’s parked. So the biggest advantage is utilizing our transportation the best we can. We could be even better, but without having a strong market in our area, with every load dumped, we’re deadheading all the way home.”

What helps make all of this work smoothly is that in Massena, Curran owns a parts department, run by employees Rodney Aiders and Gary Prashaw. The facility is stocked to handle all transportation and mechanized process equipment needs—Seaway owns a fleet of about 35 trucks and all of the forestry equipment to harvest, skid, slash, chip and grind—to keep downtime to a minimum. And to accommodate existing customer and future industry needs, the company has a processing and transfer station on 52 acres in Chateaugay, New York, right on the Canadian border.

As for operations at the plant, Curran admits that while pellet manufacturing made sense, it has been a difficult market, as an influx of new facilities a decade ago resulted in market saturation, leading to some tough years for those in the business. And, external forces have compounded that issue in some years. “In 2014 and 2015, we ran for 26 months—we never shut down, ran seven days a week,” he says. “Then, 2016 and 2017 were very bleak, and in 2018, we started to see an upward change. The market is strengthening again.”

CRE houses five Andritz pellet mills, one of which is used as a reserve. CRE’s pellets, packaged with a Hamer-Fischbein bagging system, are mostly purchased by box stores like Tractor Supply, Lowe’s and Home Hardware of Canada, and several stove shops throughout the Northeast, Ontario and Quebec. A small percentage goes into the bulk market, but Curran says that piece is steadily growing. He adds that in a decade of operation, the plant has only run at full capacity three of those years. Diversifying its product offering has helped—besides heating pellets and wood chips, Curran produces cooking pellets, including flavors BBQ, apple, cherry, maple and hickory, as well as animal bedding and garden mulch. And the company hasn’t stopped pursuing new opportunities.

CRE has been Forest Stewardship Council certified since its onset and recently become certified through the Sustainable Biomass Partnership. The hope is to generate a market for a portion of its product to be used in the industrial market, and put the facility at 100 percent operational. “I want to make sure that the employees that stick with the company, those who have been here forever, and the young people yet to come, that there is guaranteed work for them yet to come forward,” Curran says.

A long-term goal of Curran is is to someday build a bigger plant, double the size of its current 100,000-plus capacity facility. “I would like to have a pretty good footprint on a larger market, the export market,” Curran says. CRE is located within close proximity to several ports—35 miles from Port of Ogdensburg, 54 miles from Port of Valleyfield, Quebec, and 85 miles from the Port of Montreal.

In the meantime, the company will continue to find ways to streamline operations and boost its bottom line. One of CRE’s most recent major investments was a Torbel fluidized bed hot gas furnace, which allowed CRE to stop burning clean fiber for energy. CRE realized that the original furnace wasn’t sufficient, and that more heat was needed. “We have invested heavily in this facility, and I’m pretty proud of it,” Curran adds. “We’re not the most glamorous around, but with the workforce we have and employees who care, we hold our own in most marketplaces. I have no plans to move away from this—I hope to stay in it for a long time yet.”

Author: Anna Simet
Editor, Biomass Magazine
[email protected]