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More than 150 wood pellet manufacturing mills operate across the U.S., many supplying the domestic woodstove pellet market with home heating fuel. More than a quarter are industrial pellet mills, grinding thousands of acres of forest into biomass for overseas export to electrical utilities stoking retrofitted coal-fire furnaces with “densified” wood.

The largest mills, concentrated in the southeastern U.S., claim to sustainably harvest timber, from both hardwood and softwood forests. But a new mill, Highland Pellets in Pine Bluff, which harvests only fast-growing Southern softwood pine may be among the greenest. Still, the calculated ecological costs and benefits of forest biomass remain hazy.

Highland Pellets, Arkansas’s first wood biomass factory, steams and rumbles in the autumn sunlight. A private railroad encircles the new 209-acre facility, packed with tilting aerial conveyors and curving metal chutes. Every 10 minutes a logging truck rolls into the plant, hauling a 28-ton load of tree trunks harvested from Southern pine stands within an 80-mile radius. At full capacity, the new mill will process more than a half-million metric tons of wood pellets a year.

Bobby Taylor, vice president of Shelby Taylor Trucking based in Sheridan, is a third-generation commercial Southern pine forester who supplies the mill. “People grow corn? I grow pine trees,” Taylor says, grinning.

Southern pines, mostly loblolly with some shortleaf, are planted in rows like agricultural crops and grow fast, he says. Within a dozen years, the pine trees can reach 50 feet with a girth of eight inches. Taylor calls this pulpwood. He’s among several private foresters contracted to supply the mill with 250,000 tons of pulpwood annually.

From KASU 91.9: http://kasu.org/post/new-arkansas-industrial-wood-pellet-mill-raises-green-stakes