New use for Maine's pulpwood would lock carbon in building walls, bring green jobs to defunct mill
Maine's woodlands are a foundational element of the state's plans to drive down emissions of planet-warming carbon dioxide. It's a vast and growing forest, and each year its capacity to absorb CO2 increases.
Conservationists say that carbon sink must be preserved and expanded to meet the state's climate goals. And innovations at an old paper mill in Somerset County might show one way the timber industry can assist in the effort.
This story is part of our series "Climate Driven: A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time."
Starting in the 19th century and lasting into the 21st, paper mills around Maine took in tons of low-quality pulpwood every day, churning out cellulose, newsprint and other stock for the country's vibrant periodicals industry.
But with rise of digital content and global trade, and the explosion of a pulp digester in Jay two years ago, Maine's pulpwood markets collapsed. Many mills are quiet now.
"We're sitting here where they used to make the New York Times," Matthew O'Malia, the co-founder of a company called GO Lab Madison, says with a laugh. "Not making the New York Times here any more."
O'Malia sits in a brick-lined meeting room in the old Madison Mill, looking out over a hydroelectric dam that spans the Kennebec River.
GO Lab is retrofitting the facility to process low-quality byproducts of the state's lumber industry — softwood sawmill chips and timber-harvest detritus that right now are hard to sell. They'll turn it into wood-fiber insulation, called Timber HP. Some 230 million tons worth a year.
"At the end of the tree's life or when it's harvested if it were to stay in the forest it would die and release the carbon into the atmosphere," O'Malia says. "We're going to take that carbon and lock it into the building."
Similar technology has been used in Europe for decades. But insulation, being mostly air, isn't economically viable for import to the U.S. So pioneering wood-fiber insulation here is exciting environmentalists and investors, with the majority of the $100 million project financed by municipally backed "green" bonds.
O'Malia is a little shy about recounting the "aha" moment that helped him and partner Joshua Henry find their way into the insulation business.
"Yeah yeah yeah, it's not my favorite story," he says.
O'Malia is an architect, and a leader in Maine's emerging "passivhaus" movement, which aims to design housing and commercial buildings that require very low energy inputs to keep them warm or cool, thereby reducing CO2 emissions.
One day he and Henry, a chemist by training, were contemplating foam insulation that covered the shell of a partially finished passivhaus school building in Belfast.
"And he's like, 'Oh great, I see what you're doing, you're building a cheap beer cooler.' And I'm like, 'OK, that hurt,'" O'Malia says. "Basically it's derived directly from fossil fuels. And this is the problem: We're trading one environmental disaster, which is operational energy for buildings, for another, which is the materials we're using to build them, to try solve the first problem. We didn't solve any problem."
But they may have now. According to the company's estimates, they can produce nontoxic, wood-fiber batting, blown-in fill and boards at R ratings and prices competitive with all the traditional insulation products. By the company's accounts, only fiberglass would be cheaper — but fiberglass does come with a carbon cost, as do mineral wool and foam.
The company's wood fiber insulation, by contrast, will actually have a negative carbon cost, because it will sequester more carbon than is used to make it.
"I think it's terrific. We're really fortunate to have an innovative company like this coming online," says Amanda Beal, commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry and co-chair of Gov. Janet Mills' Forest Carbon Task Force.
Beal says the project could make a measurable contribution to the state's carbon budget, while the 120 jobs created would mark progress toward Mills' goal of adding 30,000 "green" jobs" to Maine's economy by 2030.
"These low-grade wood markets are really essential for woodland owners who would like to attend to their woods and ensure that they can grow bigger, older, higher-quality trees that store and sequester carbon," she says. "So there are a lot of benefits to those jobs in terms of really supporting the green economy."
Some of Maine's biggest land managers say the technology could also add value to forest-sequestration carbon credits they sell to polluting companies in California, where the government requires them to offset their CO2 emissions.
They add, though, that third-party, real-world validation of any carbon savings will be required. And for now, some big landowners that are within easy shipping distance of the Madison project say they will be happy just to find a new home for pulpwood, the market for which has all but disappeared.
"As those markets began to decline, it became increasingly difficult to be able to manage certain stand types, particularly stands that had a high proportion of smaller diameter, lower quality timber," says Daniel LaMontagne, president of Seven Islands Land Company, which manages more than 800,000 acres in Maine. "Candidly, margins suffered as a result."
Timber HP is aiming to capture as much as 7% of the regional insulation market, and LaMontagne says it's a model that seems primed for growth.
"I think there would be a fantastically encouraging reception, wherever they found a wood basket that was in sore need of new demand," he says.
In another part of the Madison mill, O'Malia and his staff have set up a kind of laboratory to show off for prospective customers various qualities of the insulation, such as its fire resistance or its ability to breathe but stay impermeable to water.
He says buildings account for almost 40% of greenhouse gas emissions, and he's hopeful markets and government policies will encourage wider adoption of technologies like his.
"We're talking about introducing this I think important tool for climate mitigation into the North American market and then it's about scaling that in an appropriate way. It's super critical to do it with the right material because if you do it with the wrong material you negate any benefit that you're proposing," O'Malia says.
The Cianbro construction company is retrofitting the plant now, installing infrastructure shipped in from Europe. Timber HP plans to start turning wood chips into carbon-banking insulation in early 2023.