Maine biomass plant offline for third straight month, forfeiting taxpayer cash

Posted July 07, 2017, at 1:53 p.m.
Last modified July 13, 2017, at 2:19 p.m.

A Jonesboro biomass plant was offline for the third straight month in June, prolonging a temporary shutdown the company previously attributed to a boiler leak and, later, “mud season.”

The shutdown comes after the company qualified for taxpayer subsidies that intended to keep the plants open, preserving a market for loggers hit hard by the collapse of Maine’s pulp and paper industry.

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Jonesboro plant operator Stored Solar also did not operate its West Enfield plant for the second half of June, missing out on hundreds of thousands in potential taxpayer subsidies.

The shortfall adds to the company’s challenges in getting a broader vision for revitalizing Maine’s forest products industry off the ground. Last month, it said it’s hit “some impediments” getting a federal loan guarantee for a $240 million biorefinery in East Millinocket.

The company received $50,000 from the Maine Technology Institute last year to support that application.

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For the month, Stored Solar’s plants put out just 19 percent of the amount that could qualify for above-market rates. It’s generated a little more than half of the qualifying amount since it started operating under the subsidized contract in January.

Stored Solar initially attributed the shutdown in Jonesboro to a boiler leak and then to challenges finding wood supply during the late spring mud season.

Dan Cashman, the spokesman who detailed those challenges, on Friday wrote via email that the Bangor-based firm Sutherland Weston Marketing Communications is no longer working with Stored Solar. A company director did not respond to an email request for comment Friday.

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The second company in line for those taxpayer dollars, ReEnergy, has generated about 90 percent of the qualifying subsidy amount.

That difference in performance will show up in real dollars and cents at the end of the year when Stored Solar will have to show it met the employment and wood purchasing goals required to get the state subsidies. To receive the subsidies, Stored Solar agreed to employ 42 people and buy 500,000 tons of Maine wood fiber each year.

Not hitting those goals could affect the amount they ultimately receive. But if all of its power generated does qualify, it will have netted about half the amount captured so far by ReEnergy, and in less time.

ReEnergy has operated under the contracts since March. Stored Solar began in January.

Both subsidy arrangements are structured differently, which results in ReEnergy’s appearing to run backwards in mid-March. The company gets subsidies when the market price is lower than $46.50 per megawatt-hour. When the market price is higher than that amount, ReEnergy’s subsidy tally runs backwards.

That’s happened during a few hours since March.

Cashman, speaking for Stored Solar, said in June that the company was trying to build up enough supply in Jonesboro before starting back up.

It’s long-term plan involves bringing in other companies that could locate near those biomass plants, as customers buying waste heat from the facilities.

Low regional power prices make it nearly impossible for the plants to turn a profit as standalone biomass plants and the company has said the new revenue stream could sustain them after the two-year state subsidy arrangement ends.

 

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