Biomass at a Crossroads
There’s nothing better than low-priced natural gas, unstable renewable energy credit markets and a stalled Clean Power Plan to motivate the biomass power sector to flip over every rock looking for additional economic value from the organic material that others leave behind in the woods and fields.
Throughout March, my travels took me to Amsterdam to speak at the World Biofuels Conference. There, I learned and spoke about biomass displacing coal in the European Union, and what set of policies would be needed to use more pellets in the U.S. I also learned that companies like Stora Enso—once world leaders in the production of paper—are using fiber for all sorts of higher value new products like sugars, biochemical and other bioproducts. For that company, and many others, making pulp and paper is no longer the dominant part of their future.
The Amsterdam talks about innovation and investment could not be timelier for a discussion on this side of the Atlantic about the future of our forest products industry. Here in Maine, we have lost five paper mills in 24 months. That’s direct and indirect job losses exceeding 5,000 in a state that has higher poverty rates than most areas of the country. It’s an economic collapse never before seen in Maine.
To learn more about the future of the bioeconomy, I was invited along with Sarah Boggess at ReEnergy to represent biomass power producers at a meeting in Lincoln, Maine, home to a now-closed tissue mill. Convened by Maine Sen. Angus King and his staff, the event, “Maine’s Forest Economy Roundtable: Strengthening Maine’s Forest Economy Industry,” was an opportunity for loggers, power plant operators, sawmills, and town officials—many of whom have lost almost their entire tax base—to come together and discuss a path forward.
Noting the accomplishments of George Washington Carver in creating products from peanuts, King urged the industry to find the “George Washington Carver of Wood.” We learned about the potential for small-scale combined-heat-and-power at Robbins Lumber, the work done by the University of Maine and Biobased Maine on promoting the use of biofuels, and the potential for thermal greenhouses at power plants. But we also learned from Maine’s logging community that the state’s biobased economy will become a whole lot harder if Maine biomass plants and the remaining paper mills close. An entire value chain of landowners, foresters, loggers and truck drivers is at risk of being lost forever.
States from Maine to California are currently wrestling with strategies to keep biomass plants viable in the face of lower power prices. Frustratingly, it’s also at a time when limitless fiber from trees killed by drought or diseased by the pine beetle epidemic ie unused on millions of acres in the West.
Regrettably, the debate sometimes reverts to a comparison with natural gas. But cheap natural gas doesn’t keep forests healthy, or solve a waste problem for sawmills, or create a market for residual or by-products, or provide a solution to the impending spruce budworm disaster now on the doorstep of north New England.
Like the paper industry, we will innovate. But federal and state policymakers need to help make sure that the bioproducts of tomorrow are not jeopardized by the actions we take today. On May 11, Biomass Power Association members will be meeting with federal legislators in Washington, D.C., for our annual fly-in to make these points. We welcome all involved in the biomass industry to join us.
Author: Bob Cleaves
President, Biomass Power Association