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Highland Pellets: New $229 Million Wood Pellet Plant in Arkansas Pine Belt Focuses on Sustainability and Helps Revive Local Timber Industry

Posted February 22, 2017 in Case Studies

“Highland has enjoyed building a close relationship with our dedicated and creative partners at Entergy to deliver cost effective and reliable power to our facility.” – Tom Reilley, Chairman, Highland Pellets

The recent surge in the demand for wood pellets across the European market is driven by legislated goals to increase renewable energy consumption and decrease coal consumption. Highland Pellets was founded to provide sustainable wood pellets to European countries for commercial and residential power generation.

Highland reports that after allowing for the energy spent in collecting the wood, processing it into pellets and transporting the pellets by ship to Europe, the amount of greenhouse gas emissions released from burning the pellets is still around 78 percent less than if the power station in Europe burned coal.

The Highland plant will use up to 1.4 million tons per year of wood feedstock, or fiber, taken from sustainably managed private working forests in the local area. Even after Highland’s processing of local wood, the pine wood in the region is forecast to increase from 113 million tons in 2014 to 156.8 million tons in 2032.

Highland has additional production sites under development in Arkansas and Mississippi. All fiber supplied to these sites will be fully sustainable with a significant proportion coming from residual waste wood (shavings and sawdust) from local saw mills.


Stringent Standards for Environmental Sustainability

For Highland, a commitment to sustainability is a core philosophy. To comply with stringent European standards provided by the Sustainable Biomass Partnership, Highland is committed to standards that extend beyond those current in the U.S.

Highland’s fiber has guaranteed quality characteristics and is fully-audited and certified as coming from legal and sustainable sources, which do not harm the local environment, wildlife or local inhabitants. This fiber supply is fully contracted for 10 years.

Efficient Production and Supply Chain

Highland’s commitment to sustainability extends to minimizing energy use in both pellet production and transport logistics. All the pellet material is dried using waste wood rather than natural gas, and pellets are transported to port by rail rather than road to minimize the carbon footprint.

Strong Community Partnerships

Tom Reilley, chairman and co-founder of Highland Pellets, describes the Highland plant’s goal as “producing sustainable fuel and producing sustainable outcomes for our employees, our community and our environment.”

The timing was right for Highland Pellets to locate in Pine Bluff. The local timber industry and economy had suffered a blow during the Great Recession when housing construction slowed. The industry has also been impacted by reduced consumption of paper with the rise of new paperless technologies. These losses led to the availability of a skilled workforce with experience in the wood industry – a key asset for the Pine Bluff location.

By giving local forest owners a market for wood fiber that would otherwise not be marketable, Highland is contributing an additional source of revenue for them. This encourages and enables forest owners to practice responsible thinning and harvesting of working forests. It gives them a stake in the growth and sustainability of their forests and supports a local industry that many families rely on for their livelihoods.

The direct financial impact on the Pine Bluff area generated through the operation of the plant and its workers, vendors and suppliers is anticipated to exceed $86 million estimated annually.

Lou Ann Nisbett, president and CEO of the Economic Development Alliance for Jefferson County, says, “One of the great things about Highland Pellets locating here is their compassion for this community. I’ve already seen that they are looking at what improvements they can make, how they can be involved. They want to be supportive.”


The process of introducing Highland to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, is a good example of how local and corporate Entergy teams collaborate with customers from the planning stages, through site location, construction and ongoing operations.

In June 2013, the Entergy Arkansas account team was referred by their Entergy Texas counterparts to the third-party consultant assisting Highland Pellets with their site search. Entergy immediately teamed up with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and Economic Development Alliance for Jefferson County to identify potential sites, which they could do quickly because of their established working relationship and experience in site location for heavy-energy-load industries. Highland executives soon made a site visit, and by the end of the year, finalized their decision to locate their first plant in Pine Bluff.

Focus on Planning Stage

Electricity is always a critical factor in industrial plant location and design, and this was especially true for Highland, considering their priorities of efficiency and sustainability.

The team working on the energy plan for the Highland plant included Entergy’s corporate Large Project Services group, which integrates engineering, project management, customer service, and heavy transmission construction. This group concentrates expertise and experience from throughout Entergy and its four-state service area, which includes wood pellet manufacturing plants.

Entergy’s focus on the planning stage is based on the understanding that the expertise brought to bear at the very beginning of the project is critical to a customer’s long-term business profitability. This focus allows Entergy to explore different energy solutions, find the one that aligns with the customer’s business priorities, and accelerates the customer’s speed to market.


Being a part of the Highland project from the beginning allowed Entergy to develop an energy solution with the optimal balance of electric reliability, cost and schedule.

While it might have been possible to expand a nearby substation to meet Highland’s requirements, this would not have been optimal for the large load the plant would require. Highland considered building their own substation, but working through the decision with Entergy, they determined that allowing Entergy to build, own, operate and maintain the substation would be the best solution. This would permit them to focus on the complexity of their industrial operation, leaving energy management to Entergy.

Entergy is also supporting Highland’s business goals and commitment to sustainability by providing a low-carbon fuel mix – 95 percent is nuclear and natural gas.

During the planning stages, Highland needed to make some equipment changes. The Entergy team applied their knowledge of the project in working with a new team of equipment providers and adapting to the change.

To make up for unanticipated time working through equipment installation, Entergy fast-tracked its work to meet the goal of launching plant operations in November 2016. In fact, Entergy’s engineering and contract work were completed ahead of schedule.

Through a collaborative effort of Highland and its contractors and vendors, Arkansas state and local officials, and Entergy – and despite 50 percent more rainfall than normal for the area – the plant was completed on time and below budget, fulfilling the vision Highland had when they moved to Arkansas.

For additional information on Highland Pellets click here.

Key Industries

Wood and Paper Products