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Maine Loggers Concerned About Closing Biomass Plants

Jay Field
The W.C. Tripp chipper in action in Palermo.

Covanta Energy says its biomass plants in West Enfield and Jonesboro have struggled to turn a profit as low fossil fuel prices have reduced the demand for biomass energy. The two facilities are now scheduled to close at the end of March.

Biomass accounts for more than a quarter of Maine's total electricity output, and roughly 2,500 logging jobs are tied, in some way, to supplying the industry with woody debris.

Loggers worry the plant closures will cut into their business, and they're pressuring the LePage Administration to help find a way to stabilize the biomass industry.

A lot of that pressure is being directed at an office on the third floor of the Burton M. Cross building in Augusta, adjacent to the state capitol. It's the governor's Energy Office, where Patrick Woodcock is the man in charge.

The biomass industry, says Woodcock, has been hit hard by a historic change in the energy markets.

"Pricing for gasoline, below two dollars, that all consumers see," he says. "Energy producers in Maine, including our biomass industry, are affected by lower pricing."

Covanta's plants in West Enfield and Jonesboro sell energy to the electricity grid, ISO New England. The two plants have purchased woody debris from Maine loggers for years. But the extremely low price of fossil fuels has reduced demand for biomass energy, making it difficult for the facilities to turn a profit.

Woodcock says their impending closure, at the end of March, has left the state's logging industry at a crossroads.

"It really is another step, in terms of taking an enormous amount of wood out of Maine's market," he says.

"It's gonna mean less production," says Wayne Tripp, deep in the woods of Waldo County watching one of his skidders feed logs to a crane. "And that crane is feeding the chipper and the chipper is feeding the truck."

A torrent of sawdust flies out the back of the chipper and into the back of a semi.

"And as it fills," he says, "it will work its way to the back of the trailer. And that will be about a 32-ton load right there, when that's all done."

Tripp runs W.C. Tripp Forest Products, a 14-person logging operation based in Frankfort. The company sells biomass to the West Enfield and Jonesboro plants, as well as to ReEnergy, which operates four plants in Maine.

"Biomass makes up roughly 25 percent of my business," he says. "That chipper you see, sitting right there, has 600 hours on it. It's basically a brand new machine. And this summer, I'm basically in fear it's going to be parked for the summer."

More than 2,500 logging jobs in the state are tied, in some way, to the biomass industry, according to Professional Logging Contractors of Maine. The impending closures in West Enfield and Jonesboro come as the loggers also struggle with the recent shutdowns of paper mills in Maine.

"We're very concerned," says Dana Doran, Professional Logging Contractors' executive director. "Without a strong biomass market for low-value wood, it has a great impact on the entire value chain in the forest products industry."

Doran says pulp, paper and saw mills need a place where they can unload low-value wood chips and sawdust. He says his group has begun talking with the LePage Administration about what can be done to stabilize the biomass industry over the short and long terms.

"We need some assistance with the state of Massachusetts, where a company like Covanta currently sells their RECs, too," he says.

Plants that produce green power get one renewable energy credit, or REC, for every 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity they feed to the grid. RECs are essentially sold, along with power, as the proof that electricity is, in fact, renewable.

On Jan. 1, new energy efficiency standards for biomass plants went into effect in Massachusetts. Covanta's operations in West Enfield and Jonesboro no longer qualify under the new regulations, which means they can longer sell RECs to Massachusetts.

"It kind of illustrates that we need consistency," says Patrick Woodcock, the governor's top energy advisor. "We continue to argue that biomass should be included in renewable programs."

Woodcock says the administration has raised the issue with Massachusetts. How that state chooses to address this issue, or not, will have a big effect on the future of Maine's biomass and logging industries.