September 23, 2018
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Biomass power plants backed by tax money haven’t run in four months

Darren Fishell | BDN
Darren Fishell | BDN
Stored Solar’s West Enfield wood-to-energy plant, pictured here, and another in Jonesboro have been idle since the end of March.
By Darren Fishell, BDN Staff

Two wood-to-energy plants getting taxpayer cash to support Maine forestry jobs have been out of operation since the end of March, dramatically cutting employment at the facilities as the plants enter month five of the outage.

The outages at Stored Solar’s West Enfield and Jonesboro plants have continued after managers at the company in April attributed the shutdowns to an early mud season.

The company’s two facilities remained offline beginning in March and remained offline through July, according to regulatory records.

During that time, the company cut two-thirds of its workforce, employing the equivalent of 15 full-time workers in May and June.

That’s after Maine taxpayers gave the company more than $30,000 for every in-plant job it provided last year. The median wage in Penobscot County was $33,000 last year, according to state data.

Taxpayers shelled out even more last year to support jobs at two other wood-to-energy facilities in Aroostook County, operated by ReEnergy. The company took in about $52,700 for each of the company’s roughly 53 employees in Ashland and Fort Fairfield. The median wage in Aroostook County was $34,000 last year.

By comparison, ReEnergy has had about six weeks of downtime across both its plants, with its longest outage of two weeks in May at its Ashland plant.

Stored Solar’s outage is the latest trouble for the company that has been sued by contractors, left local taxes unpaid and in a presentation used a testimonial from a former employee who declined to verify the statement. Wood suppliers accused the company of delaying payments for months at a time.

Karen Byther declined to confirm or deny that she made the testimonial Stored Solar used after a reporter read it to her over the phone. Byther was not aware her name was being used in a company presentation. The presentation did not identify her as a current or former employee, and she declined to comment further about her time working for Stored Solar. She had spent 11 years at the facility as an executive assistant for the previous owner, Covanta.

The company has not yet reported employment figures for July, and a company leader was not available this week for comment on the latest production report.

The report shows that Stored Solar has far underperformed against its own goals and its fellow subsidy recipient, ReEnergy.

Overall, Stored Solar has missed more in potential subsidies than it has captured. And, last year, it got even less than it hoped, as regulators cut its subsidy. The company fell short on investment requirements, purchasing just 40 percent of the wood and making 60 percent of the investments required to receive the full subsidy payment.

[Stored Solar has ties to failed Great Northern Paper redeveloper]

As a result, the company received roughly one-fourth of its possible subsidy for the year because of underperforming generation targets and economic impact. It took in $1.24 million in taxpayer cash when it could have gotten as much as $4.6 million.

A group of lawmakers had sought for the company to get even less, proposing a bill that would have effectively invalidated the company’s subsidies and called for the attorney general’s office to investigate the company.

The subsidy deal was controversial after its passage. Gov. Paul LePage signed the bill but later said he opposed it.

“I was very much against it,” LePage said in a press conference on energy policy last year.

LePage said he signed the bill because he “had no choice. It was a done deal.”

“Sometimes — when you know that 99 percent of the legislature signs it — I can veto it, and it’s not going to do any good. That’s the only reason it got signed,” LePage said.

But chances of a successful veto have hardly stopped LePage. He’s vetoed more bills than all Maine governors dating back to 1917, and about half of those failed.

[LePage keeps backing energy firm seeking taxpayer help, despite failings after bailout]

The same month of his statement, the company told a federal judge that LePage’s administration supported its plan to build a massive biorefinery in East Millinocket, using commercially untested technology. That deal fell apart after a lawsuit with the owners of the former Great Northern Paper mill site there.

The company has sought to create what it calls a new “bio-economy” in the state.

The following month, March 2017, LePage’s Department of Economic and Community Development co-hosted a VIP breakfast event in Washington, D.C., with Stored Solar affiliate Born Global, during the Advanced Bioeconomy Leadership Conference.

LePage attended and spoke at the event a second time in October 2017, saying Maine’s top priority is to attract a more diverse array of forest product businesses to the state.

Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to mainefocus@bangordailynews.com.

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