Governor backs factory plans

Posted Aug. 06, 2009, at 8:06 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. John Baldacci said Thursday he supports a Rockport company’s proposed $20 million biomass furnace factory slated for Millinocket next year and its plans to power and heat a proposed 115-unit subdivision and school in Portland with two of its furnaces.

Baldacci’s approval is crucial to RE-Gen LLC’s applications for about $9 million in federal and state grants. The applications seek $7 million for the factory and as much as $2.4 million for the subdivision, RE-Gen President Joseph M. Cloutier said.

The governor said he chose to support RE-Gen’s plans to manufacture and distribute environmentally friendly biomass gasification furnaces, designed by Uniconfort of Italy, once he learned that RE-Gen’s need for wood chips to power its furnaces would not compete with Maine’s wood, paper and pellet industries.

“I am very impressed with what they plan to do,” Baldacci said Thursday. “I know his [Cloutier’s] work with housing subdivisions around the state. He is very well-respected. He doesn’t promise to do something unless he can do it.”

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Using a decades-old European technology and having sold more than 2,000 units worldwide, Uniconfort produces furnaces that make steam by burning low-grade green waste-wood chips — made from tree tops and limbs — not used by state paper and pellet mills, Cloutier said.

The furnaces also can make electricity, if certain components are added, and burn landfill wastes, according to uniconfort.com. RE-Gen is negotiating with another Italian company to provide those components.

The furnaces are capable of generating 700,000 to 5 million Btu and also can generate as much as 10 megawatts of electricity, with proper components. That’s enough to electrify and heat schools, hospitals, subdivisions, and office and apartment buildings for at least 25 percent less than typical electric utility rates and heating with No. 2 heating oil would cost, Cloutier said.

Larger units capable of generating as much as 20 million Btu, which would manufacture enough electricity to sell to the New England power grid, also would be available and distributed, but not manufactured, at RE-Gen’s proposed factory site in the Huber Industrial Park, Cloutier said.

The furnaces typically pay for themselves within three years, uniconfort.com stated.

If all goes well, the plant would be built by 50 construction workers in late summer 2010 and employ eight full-time workers on-site, plus seven biomass fuel suppliers. At year three, 50 factory workers and 15 loggers and machine operators would be employed; at year five, 100 factory workers and 50 woodsmen would have jobs, according to the executive summary of Cloutier’s plan.

Millinocket Town Manager Eugene Conlogue said RE-Gen’s plans could make the Katahdin region the cornerstone of a nationwide manufacturing and distribution system. RE-Gen is seeking a license to distribute Uniconfort products throughout New York state and New England, officials said.

RE-Gen chose to locate the factory in Millinocket because it borders the largest contiguous tract of forest in North America and has a skilled work force of woodsmen and welders, said Cloutier, who owns or operates about 70 assisted living centers in New England and who helped turn the town’s former Maine Avenue high school into the Stearns Assisted Living Center nine years ago.

“In five to 10 years, we could see RE-Gen be a national leader in [this] technology,” said Conlogue, who attended the meeting with several Millinocket Town Council members and state Rep. Herbie Clark, D-Millinocket.

RE-Gen also could make Millinocket, with its access to the Golden Road — the private logging road to the North Woods — the nucleus of a cluster of manufacturers devoted to new, environmentally friendly energy technologies that burn wood, Conlogue said.

Its proximity to forests made Millinocket, a town of about 4,700 in northern Penobscot County, a jewel of the state’s paper manufacturing industries for almost all of the last century. Millinocket’s Katahdin Avenue paper mill employed more than 1,500 people and the town had nearly 10,000 residents until the 1990s, when a cy-cle of layoffs decimated its business and residential base.

The paper mill, which now has about 150 workers, closed temporarily in September. Its owner seeks investors to retrofit it with biomass burners that would end its need for No. 2 heating oil.

“We need to diversify our economy with more manufacturing, because we haven’t really seen an increase [in tourism] over the last few years,” Town Council Chairman Scott Gonya said.

Baldacci directed the Maine Department of Education and the Maine Housing Authority to see how the furnaces could be used in new state buildings. RE-Gen officials will meet with the MHA on Aug. 13, Cloutier said.

“Our funding is the key piece of this that we are working on,” Cloutier said. “The market is there. The technology is there.”

Among the grants RE-Gen seeks are:

ä $500,000 from the Maine Technology Institute, a private, nonprofit organization created and funded by the state to promote promising technologies by funding research and development projects in the state’s technology sectors.

ä As much as $2.4 million in alternative energy demonstration grants from the U.S. Department of Energy. The funds would help pay for the cogeneration plant that would power the subdivision off Warren Avenue in Portland.

ä $6.5 million from the federal Department of Energy to aid in the factory’s construction.

The company hopes to hear back on the grants by October. RE-Gen might seek funding from the Efficiency Maine Trust, a state program created in June that combines all Maine energy rebate, efficiency and conservation programs.

Besides assembling its financing, RE-Gen officials are working on supply agreements for wood chips and creating its own waste-wood certification program, said Chad Armstrong, a RE-Gen engineer who is helping develop the project.

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