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Energy, forestry experts express optimism touring biomass plant on Fort Drum

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FORT DRUM — During a tour of ReEnergy Holdings LLC’s Black River biomass facility on post Thursday, several industry observers were optimistic about how sites like the plant could benefit local economies across the state.

“There’s a big potential to grow capacity,” said Alice Brumbach, the executive administrator of the New York Biomass Energy Alliance. She said one major benefit was that local job and supply chains are created in areas around biomass facilities.

Thursday morning’s tour, set up by ReEnergy, the alliance and the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency, brought about 40 people from a range of specialties to the post to see the 60-megawatt generating plant and learn about its operations.

“It’s a new market for forestry,” said Eric W. Carlson, president of the Empire State Forest Products Association. “We need markets for these private and state forests.”

The plant, which opened in June after approximately $34 million in work was done to convert the site from burning coal, currently provides power to the area around the post, and sells renewable energy credits to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

A number of those in attendance were connected to the growth of shrub willow harvest. Shrub willow burns like most wood products but can be readied for use in four years for its first crop, much faster than most area tree species. The product also can be harvested at times when heavy mud makes logging unfeasible.

Robert J. McDonagh, who operates on 1,100 acres of farm property in Cape Vincent, said his first shrub willow harvest will be ready this fall, and that he was trying to expand his acreage so he could grow more of it.

“We have an end user,” he said. “There’s stability that way.”

Mr. McDonagh was joined at the event by Marty T. Mason, another Cape Vincent farmer who changed to the shrub after about 10 years growing hay and corn. He planted his first crop this spring.

“I thought I’d give it a try,” he said. “It was something different, and I figured I’d get in on the ground floor.”

David G. Dungate, president of Bioenergy Project Partners, which works around biofuel projects for buildings like schools, said larger projects like the plant helped develop the resources that would aid small-scale efforts.

“We need a viable industry, and this is a big part of keeping the forest industry viable,” he said.

The looming question for the facility is whether ReEnergy will receive a contract to supply the post with millions of dollars in renewable power from the plant. The site was listed by the government as one of two areas on post usable for the creation of such sustainable power.

A spokeswoman for the Defense Logistics Agency-Energy said in an email last week that the decision would come this month or September, and a company spokesman said Thursday that they had not been informed that a decision had been made.

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