Dirigo: Maine Lives Up to Motto
In April, the Maine legislature voted overwhelmingly to pass a bipartisan measure to help our state’s biomass industry. Maine Gov. Paul LePage signed the bill a few days later, approving a package that will fund the industry with $13.4 million from Maine taxpayers over the next two years.
In passing this bill, Maine’s lawmakers lived up to the state’s motto, “Dirigo,” which is Latin for “I lead.”
The predictable refrain from state environmental groups (biomass is “dirtier than coal”) was thoroughly debunked and rejected by leaders from both parties, many of whom are known throughout Maine as champions of the environment. Maine’s leaders recognized that a healthy biomass industry is crucial to the state’s economy. It’s no secret that biomass, along with the forest products sector, is going through a hard time right now, not just in Maine, but across the country. The lowest fossil fuel prices in six years, combined with regulatory uncertainty, are causing plants to go idle from Maine to California and in many states in between.
The forest products industry is faring no better. Last month, the Madison paper mill announced impending closure, marking Maine’s fifth paper mill closure in less than two years. With this closure, Maine’s paper industry workforce will have been reduced by 2,300 in five years.
Biomass power, as part of the forest products sector, is a cornerstone of Maine commerce. Loggers, sawmills and paper mills depend on revenue from selling unusable, low-value materials like treetops, limbs, chips and sawdust to biomass facilities. An estimated 2.5 million tons of these materials are sold to biomass facilities in Maine each year. Without this market, they would either be landfilled or cause an even more serious strain on the higher-value forest products market.
When Maine’s biomass fleet is running at full capacity, it provides up to 25 percent of the state’s total electricity. That’s not a share of renewable power, but of Maine’s entire electricity needs, one of the highest renewable power shares of any state in the nation.
It’s hard to define the full benefits conferred by biomass. The cents paid to a facility per kilowatt-hour do not accurately reflect its jobs, market support, waste wood disposal or environmental benefits. In Maine, state leaders concluded that they could not forfeit these benefits, and certainly not the $300 million annual contributions of biomass to Maine’s economy.
In Maine, this was a team effort contributed to by biomass facilities, loggers and landowners in equal measures. By working together, these groups were able to showcase the full force of the revenue and jobs at stake.
Hopefully, other states like California and Michigan will emulate Maine’s good example and support the biomass industry and its many partners through the challenges experienced in so many markets. For a reasonable investment, the biomass industry can be kept up and running, helping maintain forests and economies alike. The Maine state government has shown its support for biomass. Other states should follow its lead.
Author: Bob Cleaves
President, Biomass Power Association