Pellet revival: BioPower breathes new life into Atikokan pellet plant

Maria Church
April 04, 2018
Written by
Under its new ownership, the Atikokan pellet plant is again fully operational and employs 25 experienced local employees.
Under its new ownership, the Atikokan pellet plant is again fully operational and employs 25 experienced local employees. Photo by Deb Cain
April 4, 2018 - A little over a year after news broke that U.S. pellet giant Rentech’s northern Ontario operations — Wawa and Atikokan — were struggling, the Atikokan wood pellet plant is once again fully operational under new, local ownership, and looking to expand.

BioPower Sustainable Energy Corp. purchased the Atikokan plant from Rentech in December 2017. BioPower is a subsidiary of True North Timber (TNT), a logging contractor based in Chapleau, Ont. Both TNT and BioPower are owned and operated by Northern Ontario-born CEO Mark Guillemette.

“We had been looking for the right investment opportunity for several years, and this pellet plant was exactly the opportunity we had in mind in Northern Ontario. It is clean, innovative and a sustainable energy solution,” Guillemette says.

The Atikokan wood pellet plant complements TNT’s existing presence in sustainable woodland operations and allows the company to extend into new emerging markets, he says.

Originally a particle board processing mill, Rentech purchased the Atikokan facility in 2013. In the same year Rentech purchased a former strand processing mill in Wawa from Weyerhauser. Both mills were converted to pellet plants and secured long-term offtake contracts, but encountered delays in production due to equipment failures and issues with material handling equipment.

In February 2017 Rentech idled the Wawa mill, citing equipment and operational issues as well as an uncertain market for wood pellets. Atikokan remained open, but reduced its production to 45,000 tonnes per year, just enough to meet the company's long-term contract with Ontario Power Generation’s (OPG) Atikokan generating facility, which is run 100 per cent on wood pellets.

Under its new ownership, the Atikokan pellet plant is again fully operational and employs 25 experienced local employees to produce and deliver the OPG contract, which is secure for the next seven years. BioPower will meet the production target of 45,000 metric tonnes of commercial grade pellets this year, and is looking to increase its customer base in order to produce even more. The plant’s current capability and configuration allows it to produce 110,000 tonnes per year.

Fibre for the mill continues to be supplied by Resolute Forest Products, which operates three sawmills and a pulp mill in northwestern Ontario. “Our premium quality pellets are produced from sustainably sourced raw materials from the world’s best managed and certified boreal forests,” Guillemette says.

BioPower’s pellets are sampled and tested by Biomass Energy Lab on a weekly, quarterly and annual basis.

Upgrades
While the mill itself is in excellent condition, BioPower is moving forward with some minor upgrades and capital improvements. One such upgrade is the installation of an automated bagging machine, which will allow the company to serve new customers and markets with residential wood pellets.

New business developments are underway to ship both residential and commercial pellets to customers worldwide, Guillemette says.

“Our management team is keen to make new connections and build our network of customers, suppliers and partners globally. We are also focused on expanding into the residential heating wood pellet market,” he says.

As a northern Ontarian himself, Guillemette says he is passionate about sustaining northern industries and employment to help create prosperous communities. His father, Albert Guillemette, was the founder of TNT, which today produces over 400,000 metric tonnes annually and employs nearly 100 people.

“We are trusted and recognized for our experienced workforce, environmental stewardship, efficient processes and customer-focused approach. By bringing our 20 plus years’ experience from TNT and working together, we believe we have a unique potential to bring new new opportunities regionally and globally,” Guillemette says.

“Our vision is: ‘We innovate to power a sustainable energy future,’” he says.

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