At Work Procuring Wood for Biomass Plants with Hunter Carbee

At Work Procuring Wood for Biomass Plants with Hunter Carbee

Hunter Carbee stands on top of 12,000 tons of chips at the Concord Steam Co. in Pembroke, New Hampshire. (Photo: Kristen Fountain)

Every community has its hubs: those people who tie disparate strands of the network together, who collect and distribute information. For the forest products industry in northern New England, one of them is Hunter Carbee.

The former logger, forester, and advocate now makes his living coordinating the wood chip supply for biomass energy facilities, which are increasing in number in the region as demand grows for renewable energy. Carbee is in constant motion. On his way to visit log yards across New Hampshire and Maine in his 2000 silver Ford Focus, he is usually either talking on his cell phone or it is ringing.

“Hey there,” Carbee answers, projecting enthusiasm at seemingly any time of day. “How are we doing?” On the other end might be a logger with chips to sell, a supervisor at the Pinetree Power plant in Tamworth, New Hampshire, or one of the two co-owners of North Country Procurement, Inc. in Rumney, New Hampshire, his bosses.

At his busiest, Carbee covers a thousand miles in a week, traveling from his home in Bristol, New Hampshire, to logging operations from the shores of Sebago Lake in southern Maine to New Hampshire’s southeast corner. He likes to keep both hands on the wheel, so he sets his phone into a cradle and uses a Bluetooth headset. He pulls over to the shoulder to listen to voice messages, scribbling names and phone numbers on a yellow notepad clipped to a plastic arm that is anchored by a suction cup to the bottom center of the windshield.

North Country Procurement ensures the supply of wood chips to eight biomass-fueled facilities in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont. The company sets up contracts between the facilities and 250 logging companies around northern New England that generate 1.2 million green tons of chips annually. Carbee is responsible for on-time delivery of 330,000 of those tons to two energy plants in New Hampshire. He pulls that amount together using more than 40 suppliers, from oneman operations that bring in five tons a few times a week to a company that moves more than 900 tons every week.

The majority of the wood chips Carbee tracks are burned at the 23-megawatt Tamworth power plant, which receives 10,000 truckloads a year – an average of 40 loads every weekday. A plant owned by Concord Steam Corporation takes the other 30,000 to 40,000 tons, primarily in the winter, to heat 200 buildings in downtown Concord. The demand in Concord is expected to grow significantly after the plant expands in a new location and begins year-round co-generation of both heat and 15 megawatts of energy.

Carbee says he gets a charge from seeing the steam rising FieldW ork over the golden dome of the statehouse and billowing out of street-level grates around the capital. They are tangible signs of success in his daily mission.

“The bottom line is ‘don’t run out,’” said Carbee. That was the directive he received from his boss and long-time mentor Bob Berti upon joining the company in 2004. It is a simple idea that can become a logistical challenge, depending on the current combination of weather, electricity prices, and demand from regional paper companies, the other primary buyer of low-grade wood.

This winter the supply of chips has been plentiful, partly because the recession has slowed production at some paper companies and put others out of business. Power plants have set strict buying quotas, and Carbee finds himself turning away extra loads. But a glut can quickly become a famine.

A bout of wet weather brings logging and, eventually, chipping to a halt. Most wood-fired utilities fill their property with stacks of round logs and hills of reserve chips. Those stores, however, also have to be managed. Even in dry conditions, they should be used up and replaced every three to six months. The energy content of the wood degrades over time as the bits of wood decompose, a process that speeds up when the chips are damp.

Carbee believes his biggest asset in maintaining the delicate balance between supply and demand is the hundreds of people he has met during 35 years in the forest industry. Now 54, Carbee has held jobs in practically every sector. At 19, he fell in love with logging while working at Monadnock Forest Products in Jaffrey stacking the finished lumber. One of the men who delivered logs to the company took him into the forest one afternoon.

“I saw the skidder come up out of the woods crawling with these big pine trees in the back,” said Carbee. “The guy came driving around the corner and let the hitch go and it just clicked.  I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”

He found an outfit that would take him, learning the trade on the job. He expected to be behind the chainsaw for decades.  Then a near-fatal accident on Mount Kearsarge in early May 1987 changed the course of his life.

Carbee was cutting apart two intertwined trees when wind blew them both over. He tried to scramble away and avoided being hit by the bigger tree, a beech. But the smaller one, a birch,
struck him across the back. The blow sent him to the ground. His leg and pelvis were broken and he was bleeding internally. The other loggers on the job freed him, carried him out and drove him in the bed of a pick-up truck to Concord Hospital where he remained in traction for seven weeks. Walking again took months.

Doctors advised him against highly physical work.  Determined to continue working in the forest, Carbee began forestry classes at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, graduating first from its two-year, then its four-year program.  He was offered a position with Forest Resource Consultants in Rumney where he was one of three consulting foresters who collectively managed around 50,000 acres of woodlands. In 1999, Carbee was dispirited by the ice storm that devastated forests across the state the previous year, including those he managed. Surveying the damage was “brutal work, depressing work,” Carbee says. So when he was approached by the New Hampshire Timber Owners Association looking for a program director, he was interested.

Carbee, at right, checks in with loggers Joe Hardwick, left, and Ben Hardwick, right, at a log yard in Nelson, New Hampshire. (Photo: Kristen Fountain)

In that position for five years, Carbee gave testimony to lawmakers in Concord and represented the association at meetings.  He also ran the state’s professional logger certification program, which NHTOA offers in cooperation with the University of New Hampshire and the UNH Cooperative Extension. Every year, he told groups of loggers the story of his accident, warning them not to be complacent about safety even inside the cabs of their large machines. The NHTOA offices are in the energyefficient complex in Concord that was built by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, known as the Conservation Center. Another hub, the Center is also home to branches of other organizations, including Project Learning Tree and the New Hampshire Wildlife Federation. Carbee’s time there extended his already wide range of contacts.

It is not only his forestry background that makes him suited to his current work. Growing up in Greenfield, New Hampshire, Carbee spent time behind the counter at the family business, a combination general store and gift shop. “Dealing with the general public for all those years, you really learn people,” he said.  These days, Carbee works a small Christmas tree farm on a corner of his 70-acre childhood home on weekends. He, his parents and siblings are working with the Monadnock Conservancy to place a conservation easement on the rest.

During his calls and visits to the yards throughout the year, Carbee learns about the sites where loggers will be working next and how many tons of wood chips they expect to produce.  Meanwhile, he tells them about new legislation and about federal or state incentive programs that could provide additional income. An avid conversationalist, Carbee says the most important skill he has learned over the years is how to listen.

He wants to hear about whatever a logger is dealing with, whether a production issue or regulatory concern. “When somebody calls, sometimes they just need to get stuff off their chest,” he said. “I may have to say ‘No, I can’t buy your wood.’ But at least I can take the time to hear what they have to say.”

Carbee maintains close relationships with his suppliers.  A few of them, such as D.H. Hardwick & Sons, Inc., out of Bennington, New Hampshire, are operations he worked with as a logger and a forester, now being run by the children of people he originally knew. He enjoys catching up with them. Plus he knows those relationships will pay off in lean times. He has seen those suppliers he has a personal connection with do whatever it takes to get chips to his plants when there is a shortage.

Trying to meet the needs of both the power plants and loggers is not always easy, or even possible, Carbee says. At times, he admits, “I feel like an elastic band.”

To relax, in the rare moments of quiet on the road, he turns to music. Compact discs by classic rockers like Levon Helm and The Marshall Tucker Band are tucked next to his seat. Recently his youngest son, in high school and the only one of his three children still living with him at home,
loaded his iPod with classical music, which he has come to appreciate.

At the end of a day of connecting, instrumental music is a treat, he says. “Sometimes it’s so nice not to hear voices.”

Kristen Fountain, formerly a reporter for The Valley News, a daily newspaper based in Lebanon, New Hampshire, writes out of her home in Norwich, Vermont.


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