Just last week, Maine’s Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe spoke on the Senate floor about the critical role the biomass industry plays in our state. They know that Maine has a long history of producing energy with biomass from timber and paper mills, and that wood has long fueled the state’s economy, literally and figuratively. Given the growing need for renewable energy across the country, biomass is gaining a newfound appreciation outside of such forested states as ours. Now it needs a bit more appreciation in Washington (beyond our two senators).
Today, Maine has nine dedicated biomass plants generating 2.1 million megawatt-hours a year, enough to power 21,000 homes. The plants provide jobs for nearly 1,000 Mainers, who either work at these facilities or provide goods and services to the industry. The plants also buy nearly 3 million tons of wood annually, which helps support rural communities across the state by enhancing local property tax bases where natural resource-based businesses have declined.
Four of those plants are operated by Boralex, which burns logging residues, including slash, tree tops and branches. These kinds of biomass are “low carbon” because if they were not burned as fuel they would have emitted most of their carbon anyway as they decomposed.
Luckily for Maine, biomass is one of its most abundant renewable energy resources, which include hydro, wind, and more recently, tidal power. With the right federal policies, Maine’s biomass industry could create more energy — and more jobs. A bigger biomass industry would benefit a wide range of state residents, from landowners to foresters and loggers to biomass plant operators.
To make new investments in Maine, biomass developers need the assurance there is a growing market for renewable energy, and that’s where the federal government can make a difference. Last June, the House of Representatives passed a comprehensive climate and energy bill that would boost renewables, but it’s a year later, and the Senate has yet to act. Whatever legislation finally comes out of Congress should put a cap on carbon pollution and put a price on it per ton, which would make low-carbon biomass companies even more competitive with the coal industry, which currently does not have to pay for its global warming pollution.
In addition to placing a limit on carbon pollution, any final comprehensive climate and energy bill should include a strong federal standard requiring utilities to increase their reliance on renewable electricity. That would increase the demand for renewables, including biomass, from Maine and other states.
Sens. Collins and Snowe can protect the future of Maine’s biomass-based renewable energy economy by pushing hard for a good bill. Comprehensive climate and energy legislation that puts a price on carbon pollution and includes a strong federal renewable energy standard not only would enable the nation to avoid the worst consequences of climate change; it would make Maine’s abundant, sustainable woody biomass resources the foundation for an even more thriving clean energy industry, creating sorely needed jobs and generating income in rural parts of the state.
Sylvain Aird is vice president for legal affairs at Boralex. Bob Cleaves is president and CEO of the Biomass Power Association in Portland.