Stimulus funds eyed for furnace project

Posted Sept. 21, 2009, at 8:37 p.m.

MILLINOCKET, Maine — A fledgling Rockport furnace company is exploring using federal stimulus money to install a furnace at Stearns High School that would save Stearns about $1.9 million in energy costs over 10 years, officials said Monday.

The installation would be a great demonstration of the biomass furnace system RE-Gen LLC of Rockport plans to manufacture and distribute while saving the school about $190,000 annually, said Michael Kevin Lynch, RE-Gen’s marketing officer.

“This would help the school tremendously,” Lynch said Monday.

“The savings are the big thing,” Town Manager Eugene Conlogue said. “If we can heat that building for a fraction of what we normally pay, we should.”

Town, school and company officials will discuss the idea at a special meeting Sept. 28.

Millinocket would have to compete for the stimulus funds — about $11.4 million in American Reinvestment and Recovery Act funds for wood-to-energy projects — to get a grant through the Maine Department of Conservation, Conlogue said.

All Maine communities, public schools, hospitals, and state, county, local and tribal governments can submit “shovel-ready” project proposals for funding. Preference will go to rural, depressed areas such as Aroostook, Franklin, Hancock, Penobscot, Piscataquis, Somerset and Washington counties, conservation officials said in an e-mail to Conlogue.

The money is expected to create 200 jobs and fund as many as 15 projects, according to the e-mail.

“It is doubtful that anybody would get all of the money. They [state officials] would probably need it to be some kind of a match agreement,” Conlogue said.

If true, the town or school system might have to produce some matching funds, Conlogue said.

RE-Gen plans to distribute environmentally friendly biomass gasification furnaces, designed by Uniconfort of Italy, from Rockport and eventually manufacture them at a $20 million factory it plans to build at the Huber Industrial Park in Millinocket.

Furnace distribution will likely begin later this year. The factory, if all goes well, will go on line in January 2011, Lynch said Monday.

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 Maine’s paper and pellet mills, company officials have said.

The furnaces also can make electricity, if certain components are added, and burn landfill wastes. They can generate 700,000 to 5 million Btu and 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. The furnaces typically pay for themselves within three years, according to uniconfort.com.

RE-Gen is completing its plans and pursuing about $9 million in state and federal aid, Lynch said.

“The biggest obstacle we face is the grant deadline sometime in November,” Conlogue said. “We have to learn about their processes and whether they require a formal bid process. We have to identify whatever loose ends are out there.

“This is only in the talking stages at this point, but there is real interest in it. We may be able to pull something together here,” Conlogue said.

Gov. John Baldacci endorsed RE-Gen’s plans during a meeting early last month. At his encouragement, RE-Gen officials have met with Maine Housing Authority officials to see whether the furnaces would fit with future housing authority projects.

Baldacci and town officials hope RE-Gen will make the Katahdin region the cornerstone of a nationwide manufacturing and distribution system. RE-Gen is seeking a license to distribute Uniconfort products through 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. Its owner, Joseph Cloutier, owns or operates about 70 assisted-living centers in New England and helped turn the town’s former Maine Avenue high school into the Stearns Assisted Living Center nine years ago.

As many as 150 workers and woodsmen are expected to have factory employment by its fifth year.

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