Frank Corley has reason smile as debris from a clear-cut patch of forest is chopped up and sprayed into a truck for shipment to Selma where it will be turned into tiny pellets for European markets.
By Alvin Benn
Some call it "biofuel." Others prefer "biodiesel," "biomass" or some other "bio" term to describe a growing trend in America where the search for alternate sources of energy is finally on the front burner.
Butler County forester Frank Corley’s contribution doesn’t involve windmills, tall grass, vegetable oil, animal waste, corn or other possible sources because he’s focusing on what he does best—growing and harvesting trees.
For most of his quarter century in the forest management business, Corley has dealt with the basics of his profession. In the past few years, however, he’s also been concentrating on providing wood chips that will eventually be turned into tiny energy pellets for European markets.
Frank Corley stands in the middle of a clear-cut section of a Butler County forest. His company will soon plant more trees to be harvested in about 12 to 14 years.
The idea is to use the pellets to help displace coal as an energy source in Europe. Anti-coal environmentalists see red every time they think about that form of energy.
While wood pellets may not produce long-term results, Corley believes delivering renewable biomass to local plants to reduce energy costs and improve the environment "is an obtainable solution everyone will buy into."
Corley sees it as the wave of the future as U.S. industrialists and entrepreneurs invest in ideas aimed at solutions to the energy crisis—primarily those not involving foreign oil.
"A wide range of solutions will be tried and a combination of some of them will work long term," said Corley, in "Future Vision," a position paper he wrote to examine America’s energy problems along with possible solutions to them.
Biomass, which is the term Corley likes best, refers to biological material used as fuel or for industrial production. Thanks to Corley’s harvesting efforts, wood pellets are being produced at a plant in Selma and then used to help provide electricity in Europe.
"It is possible, maybe likely, that within the next 10 years, enough consumers of forest energy biomass will emerge to make them the largest consumer of raw forestry material in Alabama," said Corley.
Corley’s company does more than help produce pellets. Thinning stands of trees is also very important to profitability, he said, because removing weaker, smaller trees allows the bigger, healthier ones grow into higher valued products.
Forestry is a demanding business, one encompassing long hours under difficult conditions, but men like Corley love what they do and wouldn’t want to do anything else.
He’s up before the sun on most days and doesn’t get home until it’s setting. During those 14-plus hour days, he’s deep in the woods with his men, supervising, pitching in to help and planning ahead for the next day’s schedule.
A few weeks ago, he was in an area that had been clear-cut, leaving a carpet of chopped trees, branches and leaves all over the place. It wasn’t long before the debris had been shoved into a machine that chopped it all up and sprayed the chips into a tractor-trailer taking it to Dixie Pellets which is located along the Alabama River in Selma.
Most of the pellets are taken by barge to the Port of Mobile for shipment to Europe. Others arrive by 18-wheelers. Each ship heading for Europe carries about 50,000 tons of pellets.
Corley Land Services isn’t just cleaning up after clear-cutting operations. It’s also preparing the area for reforestation to provide more trees for possible pellet production in just over a decade.
On his way to the site, Corley passed by several acres that had been clear cut and left to rot in the sun. It was a mess. Big piles of decaying trees covered part of the area. It might eventually be burned or taken care of by Mother Nature.
That’s one reason the 53-year-old Auburn University (AU) graduate enjoys what he does and isn’t ashamed to call himself a clean-up man.
"You could say I’m taking out the trash," he said, breaking into a big smile as he maneuvered his pickup truck toward the area where clear-cut trees were being fed into a chipping machine. "What we’re doing is important not only for business, but the environment as well."
Corley said clear-cut areas leaving "residual debris" like the one he passed are not unusual in Alabama and other states where forests abound.
He said "whole tree chips" could provide a new outlet for those who own large tracts of forested land. He also was not placing the blame on those who owned the clear-cut area that hadn’t been cleared.
"It’s not that they did a bad job or did not care," he said. "Perhaps the landowner does not care and will not reforest, but in his defense, he is faced with a real expensive mess and probably did not know about whole tree chipping."
If Corley is anything, he’s a realist who knows many of the proposed solutions to the worldwide energy crisis are unlikely to materialize overnight, if at all. That’s why he believes wood is the answer because of its renewable resource advantages.
He said nuclear power plants can take up to two decades or longer to go on-line while converting food to energy "is costly and has already started to demonstrate unexpected negative impacts on our economy."
Corley didn’t mention ethanol and doesn’t have to, not with recent public concerns and doubts about corn and cars.
"Solar and wind will always be around and will work in given situations in limited ways," he said. "After nuclear and food crops, biomass is the next high volume option."
What makes trees so attractive, he said, is the reforestation factor, especially when provided by foresters just like him.
In recent years, Corley has achieved a national reputation for his energy independence efforts and it’s not unusual to see him chatting with foresters and industrial officials who hear about his hard work.
Not long ago, Tommy Tye and Addison Aman of the University of Georgia (UGA) spent several days in the woods, watching Corley’s crew produce wood chips for the Selma plant. They wanted to see how efficient the operation was. It didn’t take them long to reach a positive conclusion.
"He’s got a great reputation," Tye said of Corley. "We’re here to do a time study because we want to see what it costs to run and produce biomass so we can produce energy better and more efficient."
The two UGA representatives said Corley is proving forests can be used to help solve the country’s energy problems along with a side benefit.
"Not only are the wood chips being used for energy production, this is also a clean operation," said Tye. "It’s a synergistic operation that works well for everybody."
Tye also likes the way the area’s wildlife habitat is being protected, especially unpolluted streams.
"You just won’t see a cleaner operation than this one," said Tye. "They’re getting up everything and feeding it into the chipper. So, what you have here is an energy operation leaving behind a clean area."
Corley said there may be other chipper-pellet operations in Alabama "but none can come close to the scale on which we operate here."
He said Georgia is among the biggest biomass-producing states in the country and indicated his operation has achieved its own recognition. He indicated his business ranks among the best in the U.S.
When it comes to forestry experience, Corley would have to be among the best in the business in Alabama. He held several important management positions with Union Camp Corp. and, at one time, was responsible for roads and reforestation on the company’s 250,000-acre Chapman Forest.
Forestry and logging run in his family. He’s the son of a logger and worked his way through Auburn University by operating a small pulpwood operation. He also worked on harvesting research projects at AU.
Auburn continues to hold a special place in Corley’s heart. He serves on three boards at the school and, in 2001, was named alumnus of the year.
Corley and his wife, Susan, who is a third grade teacher, live in Greenville. They have two sons. One, Scott Corley, is a senior majoring in forest engineering at AU. Will Corley is a student at Greenville High School.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.