Forestry Sector Supports Wood Energy

When the pellet industry in Maine started up eight years ago, other forest product sectors were less than enthusiastic, but wood energy now has support from the entire forestry sector.
By Bill Bell | October 02, 2017

 “I get by, with a little help from my friends; Oh, I’m gonna try, with a little help from my friends…” (Beatles, 1967).

During these “slack” times, the most encouraging development affecting Maine’s four heating pellet manufacturers may be the solidarity being extended by our state’s much larger forest products industry.

This appears to mirror the increased support being provided by national forestry organizations for the pellet industry’s BTU Act, now pending in Congress.

When the pellet industry in Maine started up eight years ago, other forest product sectors were less than enthusiastic. We were regarded as competitors for fiber, potentially driving up costs for our state’s large pulp and paper industry. Five of these pulp and paper manufacturers have since closed. Maine now has a surplus of softwood fiber. Our stud mills are knocking on doors, looking for sawdust customers. Our biomass electric firms are operating only thanks to legislative intervention. Logging contractors are struggling to keep their best employees working. Our four heating pellet producers are now viewed as critical to the forest products infrastructure.

The loss of 5,000 jobs in the Maine forest industry generated an effective intervention by Maine’s U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King. Federal agencies have responded by creating the “Maine Forest Economy Growth Initiative,” and, in March of this year, a charge to develop a Roadmap for Maine’s Forest Sector. Part of this roadmap has been assigned to a combined heat and power (CHP)/biomass committee, with the objective of “growing markets for low-value underutilized wood and biomass.”

This committee recently met for the first time, and elected as chair Robert Linkletter, co-owner of the Maine Woods Pellet Co., which now includes a state-of-the-art CHP plant. The committee established its top priority—generating a third-party study of the benefits of adding thermal energy to Maine’s renewable energy credit portfolio. Such legislation is already pending before our legislature’s energy committee, but has lacked the detailed backup data that enabled passage of similar measures in neighboring New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The committee, which has a decent budget, adjourned with agreement on procedure to obtain the desired report prior to reconvening of the Maine legislature in January.

So what’s new here?  The fact that attention to wood energy now has support from the entire forestry sector. Previously, as one paper industry member stated at the committee meeting, “Our guys looked at renewable energy credits for producing wood heat as something from the pellet guys, which would drive up our electricity costs.” Now, with New Hampshire’s experience showing that adding thermal generation into renewable energy credits can actually reduce the cost of electricity for large users, we believe the legislature will be more receptive.

Conversations with the larger forest industry have also brought out opportunities for pellet heating proponents to adapt our approach. First, at least in Maine, the committee quickly decided to avoid use of the word “biomass.” This aversion results, in large part, from the failure of one of Maine’s two biomass electric firms, Stored Solar, to pay logging contractors as scheduled. This failure has generated considerable adverse publicity, particularly given the fact that public funds are being used to support biomass electric. Our committee now talks about “wood energy.”

Second, foresters have made it clear that discussing wood heat and the environment, in terms of greenhouse gas reduction, is too limited. With healthy forests also protecting clean water supplies and wildlife habitat, as well as air quality, foresters prefer talking about “all the environmental benefits of forestry.” 

Working on the Roadmap for Maine’s Forest Sector was a refreshing contrast with the previous week’s meeting, convened by our governor’s energy office’s  similarly named group, the “Maine Energy Roadmap Project.” This gathering consisted of representatives of every energy sector, including advocates for saving energy with better building “envelopes.” The discussion, with every sector jockeying for position before the governor’s energy office, was that of a verbal firing squad.  

Eight years ago, when heating oil was spiking towards $4 per gallon, Maine’s position as the most heavily forested, most oil-dependent state in the nation was enviable, from the vantage point of our emerging wood pellet industry. Since then, state governments in New Hampshire, Vermont and now Massachusetts, have surpassed us with renewable energy programs that include wood heat. We can be a little envious, or we can look around and recognize that we remain the Pine Tree State, the wood basket of the Northeast. As summer recedes and our citizens are reminded that forestry provides more year-round jobs than tourism, we can be optimistic.


Author: Bill Bell
Executive Director, Maine Pellet Fuels Association
billb@mepfa.org
www.mainepelletheat.com