Studying Biomass up North

A study in northern Maine will evaluate St. John Valley’s biomass potential.
By Anna Austin | July 28, 2011

In northern Maine, the winters are cold and long, the population is sparse and there are a lot of open spaces. Those three factors, among several others, make a good case for biomass in Maine’s St. John Valley.

Located on the northern tip of Maine, the region has a history of using biomass, particularly wood products such as cut firewood, according to University of Maine-Fort Kent researcher Brian Kermath, director of the university’s Center for Rural Sustainable Development. “Nobody really knows what percentage of domestic heat it represents, but it’s significant,” he says.

The region doesn’t have any natural gas so it’s reliant on fuel oil, prices of which are high and have spiked a few times in the past couple of years. “This is an area where the population is declining and the housing stock is fairly old and inefficient, so energy costs eat up a significant percentage of people’s incomes,” Kermath says.

That’s where the real incentives for biomass heat come in. “It’s a logical way to go,” Kermath says. “I had been looking at the region wondering what a sustainably harvested biomass industry might look like here, and my initial thought was that we would need to look at a scenario in which the entire region meets its heating needs with locally sourced biomass, and then what might be left over could be exported out of the region.”  

Last year, a grant opportunity came up through the National Science Foundation’s federally funded Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, and the University of Maine’s Sustainability Solutions Initiative was awarded funding. “They (SSI) are putting out increments of money each year to partners and we are one of them,” Kermath explains. “We’re just finishing up the first year right now, which was a planning phase with a smaller amount of money, and we’ll be submitting the year two grant proposal in the next week [July 18] or so. We have to apply for continued funding each year.”

The basic idea, Kermath says, is to assess the potential to generate biomass from forest and agriculture, and to look at the theoretical maximum demand locally. “And in subsequent years, what the realistic scenario might be for those willing to produce biomass and those who are willing to switch over to biomass from oil or whatever they’re using,” he adds.

The four-year study will involve collecting agricultural yield data, aerial photographs of forestlands to evaluate standing biomass, and forest modeling to look at regeneration and residuals. “It’ll get fairly complex as we get into the real sources; whether we will cut whole trees or simply rely on residues,” Kermath says. 

Currently, there are five other people on Kermath’s team, all working in different areas. The team hopes the study’s results will have meaningful consequences, and provide useful information for decision makers in the region.

—Anna Austin