Senator Angus King hears testimony on the value of combined heat and power biomass plants at an energy committee field hearing held at Robbins Lumber in Searsmont last week.
Senator Angus King hears testimony on the value of combined heat and power biomass plants at an energy committee field hearing held at Robbins Lumber in Searsmont last week.
Senator Angus King convened a Senate field hearing at Robbins Lumber in Searsmont on Friday, October 6, to hear testimony on the impact of combined heat and power (CHP) biomass plants on Maine jobs and electricity rates. CHP biomass plants use the state’s most abundant resource — trees.

Five mill closures in the past three years and the direct loss of about 2,500 mill jobs and the downward economic spiral it created in rural Maine towns motivated King to focus on helping the Maine forest industry look beyond pulp and paper to future products and uses for wood.

King said his goal was to utilize every twig of every tree harvested in the Maine woods.

“George Washington Carver said we needed 106 things to do with peanuts,” said King. “Here, we need 106 things to do with wood fiber.”

Last year, King and Senator Susan Collins succeeded in arguing that the number of Maine mill closures in recent years had created an economic disaster like “a slow motion economic hurricane.” That disaster designation opened the door for grant money and technical expertise for Maine’s rural towns and for new forest productbased initiatives.

Now, King is pushing efforts to help reorient the forest products industry towards new technology and uses, including wood-based bioplastics and generating electricity, heat and steam from woody debris.

King held the field hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources at Robbins Lumber to focus the discussion on CHP biomass plants. Robbins Lumber is a familyowned pine sawmill in Searsmont that has made a major investment to generate electricity for sale with the addition of a $36 million, 8.5 megawatt wood biomass CHP plant that will start generating electricity and heat next August from the piles of sawdust and woody debris they are already stockpiling at their Searsmont pine lumber mill.

On Friday, after a group tour of Robbins Lumber, King heard testimony from timber industry representatives about the impact of biomass CHP plants and their potential for creating jobs and lowering electricity costs so that the state is more attractive to industrial investment.

Biomass plants are not all alike and some are controversial in Maine for a variety of reasons.

Last year, the Maine Legislature passed a $13.4 million bailout package to save stand-alone biomass power companies that were on the verge of closing because they couldn’t make a profit. Stand-alone biomass plants only produce electricity, and their conversion of wood to electricity is on par with oil-fired plants.

The bailout translated into an increase in electric bills for Mainers.

Dana Doran, executive director of the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine, testified at the Searsmont field hearing that Maine loggers rely on biomass markets to survive, since a substantial part of their income comes from selling tree tops and limbs left over after a harvest. Doran called the 2016 bailout “the right decision.”

Doran also said biomass should be promoted as being carbon neutral, given preference over other energy sources for institutional use, and be eligible for renewable tax credits.

Biomass May or May Not Be Climate-Friendly

King and the biomass industry have promoted biomass power plants as being carbon-neutral and argued that they should be eligible for renewable-fuel incentives and subsidies. On the surface, that makes sense: trees sequester carbon and release it into the atmosphere when they are burned, then grow back to lock up more carbon. Overall, they do not contribute to a warming climate, according to this view.

But that view is problematic for several reasons. Not all trees capture carbon to the same degree, not all land managers treat forests with carbon capture in mind when they choose what to grow or how to harvest, and some biomass plants are as inefficient and as polluting as fossil-fuel plants.

Also, trees don’t grow back overnight. It takes up to a century before they grow back to suck up the carbon coming out of a power plant stack to “neutralize” it.

Mark Thibodeau of ReEnergy, a stand-alone biomass electricity company that has four power plants in Maine and relied on the 2016 bailout to survive, told King that having biomass designated as a renewable resource was necessary in order for ReEnergy to transition into higher energy efficiency.

ReEnergy is looking for companies to locate close to their existing power plants to use steam, heat, carbon dioxide, electricity and other products. The company currently works with 88 logging contractors, 20 mills, and eight industrial landowners, according to Thibodeau.

They currently sell their electricity to the power grid, with prices changing daily and no long-term agreement. That lack of stability is driving investors away, said Thibodeau.

Combined-Heat-and-Power Biomass Plants Are the Future

Mark Johnson, director of the U.S. Department of Energy Advanced Manufacturing Office, told the committee that the subsidies and government investments right now should be looked at as an investment and a bridge to get the industry through the research-and-development phase to a higher level of performance than some CHP plants are now reaching.

And CHP plants are the future when it comes to woodbased energy, said Johnson and others who gave testimony. According to the International Energy Agency, the most efficient biomass co-generation plants can reach efficiency ratings of 85 to 90 percent when all power, heat, steam and residual ash are utilized.

While the carbon-neutrality argument over biomass in general hasn’t gone away, it is taking a back seat in the wake of the announcement on Tuesday of the death of the 2014 Clean Power Plan, which was designed to limit carbon pollution emitted from coal power plants — the dirtiest source.

Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, announced Monday he would overturn the Clean Power Plan.

In Searsmont, the discussion focused on utilizing every chip of wood for maximum economic value — an approach that is compatible with sound environmental stewardship.

Robbins Lumber, which has been a family business since 1881, has a history of embracing innovation, increasing efficiency, and being good stewards of their forest land.

The new CHP biomass plant, which was built in Texas and is now at the Searsport docks awaiting delivery to the mill, is different than the stand-alone plants operated by ReEnergy.

The CHP plant will generate electricity from wood waste and capture heat to use on-site, thus increasing the energyefficiency ratings. After Robbins Lumber heats their buildings, dries lumber, and provides electricity to their facilities, they will sell about 7.5 megawatts to Central Maine Power. Robbins is also looking to attract other businesses to use some of the energy the plant will produce for local use.

Pulp and paper mill closures figured into the Robbins family’s decision to move ahead with the new investment. Robbins Lumber produces 60 tons of sawdust and 100 tons of wood chips every day. While they use some of that in their existing on-site boiler, three large truckloads of wood waste are sold to the Verso paper mill in Jay every day.

The Verso mill in Jay is in danger of closing.

“As mills have closed, our wood residue went from a revenue stream to a liability,” said Jim Robbins, president of the company.

The Robbins CHP plant is scheduled to start up in August 2018.

Maine Forest Could Help National Security

Johnson, the U.S. Department of Energy official who was at the field hearing, said the localized nature of CHP plants also holds great value during times of disaster, as was shown in the recent natural disasters in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico.

“We didn’t hear much about that, but the University of Texas at Galveston has a 7.5 Megawatt CHP biomass power plant that remained fully operational during Hurricane Harvey,” said Johnson. The CHP plant allowed one of the largest medical systems in the world to continue to function during the disaster, he said.

CHP plants are operating now in hard-hit storm areas in Florida and Puerto Rico, said Johnson.

Maine has several CHP systems that can operate independently, including the Lewiston-Auburn wastewater treatment plant, Togus Veterans Affairs hospital, and the Cumberland County Correctional Center, according to Johnson and King.

King said local energy independence in Maine and across the country has been dangerously overlooked in terms of national security.

King looked around the hearing room, noting that there were representatives there from CMP and Emera Energy, which together dominate the Maine electricity market.

“I see Emera and CMP here and they are cringing,” said King, noting decentralized energy may not put them at a disadvantage.

“There has to be a balance, with costs spread across customers,” he said.

“There is no question that the power grid is a target,” said King. “Everyone knows it. The problem is that three or four committees in Washington can’t agree on who has the authority. It is very frustrating.”

“Decentralization of power makes sense,” said King, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Intelligence Committee. “There are fewer large targets.”

“It is the longest wind-up for a punch in the history of the world, and we know it’s coming,” said King.