Economic developers undergird top crop

Wrap your brain around 122 trillion BTUs. Without context, you’re likely lost. But a walk in the woods frames the number nicely. In Louisiana’s forestry sector, that’s the annual energy extracted from biomass for electricity generation.

Louisiana now ranks No. 7 for renewable energy derived from wood and waste, according to a U.S. Energy Information Administration analysis of states. It’s a higher-value application of lower-grade forest products, one that forms energy pellets for international markets.

Louisiana’s energy pellet success emerged from crisis in rural Northeast Louisiana. Amid consolidation and recession in 2008, International Paper announced the closure of its 550-job paper mill in Bastrop. Economic developer Kay King joined Louisiana Economic Development in a redevelopment plan for the area. Her Morehouse Economic Development Corp. commissioned an LSU wood basket study, and soon prospect calls were coming from Oregon, Turkey and South Korea.

The project that stuck — an energy biomass investment from the United Kingdom — helped save a critical short-line railroad and spare thousands of acres of forestlands from permanent clearing for other land uses.

“Drax Biomass is a wonderful project,” said King, who joined former Drax executive Brian Moran in Baton Rouge the day final incentive approval came for a $120 million project. “We were having this discussion about the future of energy that day. You need diversification. (Drax) is not producing every kilowatt of energy with wood, but the future of energy is going to be how we combine our resources to make the most efficient and environmentally friendly energy we can.”

Today, Drax employs 290 people. After targeting 47 jobs in Morehouse Parish, the company exceeded state goals and now employs 159 in Morehouse and LaSalle parishes. Drax created 59 more jobs in Monroe by moving corporate headquarters from Atlanta, and it operates a biomass plant in Amite County, Mississippi. Recently, Drax loaded 63,000 metric tons into the 100th ship dispatching pellets from the Port of Greater Baton Rouge to the U.K.

“With Louisiana’s well-managed and sustainable timber industry, our business has been very resilient,” said Annmarie Sartor, Drax Biomass communications officer. In addition to supporting 12 percent of the U.K.’s renewable electricity, she said parent Drax Group hopes to be carbon-negative — taking more carbon from the air than it produces — by 2030.

Broad impact

While pursuing new prospects, LED devotes even more energy to strengthening mature forest products companies. Most are modernizing for changing markets. And modernization helps secure jobs in Louisiana’s rural communities.