ORONO, Maine – Industry needs to embrace bioenergy now or risk being left behind, forestry sector stakeholders said at a closing meeting of the Atlantica Bioenergy Task Force, Tuesday.

Capital cost requirements are hefty for some of the technology that would allow companies to produce energy, chemicals and other materials from wood.

But industry representatives said they need to change their mindsets now or they’ll be beat to the region’s biomass and left out of new revenue tools.

“We’ve got to get our heads around the fact that there are opportunities in the wood products business that are more than just incremental,” said Jon Porter, manager of forestry and fibre research for AbitibiBowater Inc., which owns a newsprint operation and sawmill in Nova Scotia.

The task force was made up of 22 industry, government and academic partners who were charged with finding bioenergy solutions relevant to New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Maine, which all share the Acadian forest.

A final task force report will be released in January.

Industry spokespeople at the Thursday meeting agreed the area’s wood needs to be used here to create jobs and wealth, rather than in other jurisdictions.

While the New Brunswick government launched a biomass policy in early November that seeks to address who can harvest on Crown lands, private woodlot owners still control roughly 30 per cent of the provincial biomass, industry members said.

Forest products companies in New Brunswick are already watching the province’s forest material fuel plants in the United States.

Shawn Little is a forester at B & W Gillespie Ltd., a private woodlot owner and contractor in Harvey, N.B., that currently sells about 30 per cent of its wood chips to a cogeneration plant and pulp mill in Maine.

He said his company would save on transportation costs if there was a need for its wood in New Brunswick.

But with many sawmills operating at reduced production schedules and just a handful of cogeneration plants in the province, B & W Gillespie cannot find markets at home.

European coal-fired plants are hungrier than ever for Canada’s wood products in response to carbon taxes imposed by the European Union, which cost as much as New Brunswick’s most expensive energy per kilowatt hour.

Shipments of wood pellets are leaving en masse from Vancouver’s ports, bound for European destinations where companies are firing coal plants in part with wood, said Thomas Browne, the program manager for mechanical pulping and sustainability for FPInnovations, a national forest research body.

“What needs to happen here is there has to be a use of the biomass here that generates enough value for the woodlot owner and industry that it makes sense to use it here,” Browne said.

“Pulp mills have to have uses of the wood that are higher in value so they can pay the higher prices for biomass that I believe are coming.”

Randy Ross, the general manager of a Carleton County, N.B.-based manufacturing company, Carleton International Ltd., told the group he believes industry should go after the “low-hanging fruit-” cheaper technology that can offer quick returns.

“You’ve got to take advantage of the easiest one (technology) to implement first,” Ross said.

Ross attended the conference because his company wants to build equipment that would make harvesting forest material efficient and quick.

Torrefaction – a thermal pre-treatment or “roasting” of wood that creates pellets 30 per cent lighter to reduce transportation costs by about 60 per cent – is a relatively low capital cost option that got a lot of attention by industry and researchers at the conference.

Capital cost intensive refineries that produce biodiesel or bioethanol may be further in the future and may require help from other industries for expertise and financing, stakeholders said.

Other challenges exist for forest products companies, which include finding markets, influencing policy change and finding financing tools to fund new operations.

But the message was clear that there is no better time to act on bioenergy than now.

“The answer can’t be, we can’t afford it, because change costs money,” said Shawn Porter, the PricewaterhouseCoopers Inc. consultant who co-led the task force.