The public-private initiative Aroostook Partnership has a clear mission to drive economic development in Aroostook County. Because the forest products industry is the largest economic engine in The County, the partnership took a strong interest when the Maine Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage began to discuss LD 1676, An Act to Establish a Process for the Procurement of Biomass Resources, this past winter.
As members of the partnership’s Northern Maine Forest Products Industry Cluster, more than 25 businesses, landowners, educators and economic development officials related to forest products have been meeting regularly over the past two years to advance initiatives to benefit and grow the industry in northern Maine. We were among the many people who advocated for passage of LD 1676.
We were pleased to see that the entire Aroostook County delegation voted “yes” on this legislation. In addition, we want to express our gratitude for the leadership of Speaker of the House Mark Eves and Senate President Michael Thibodeau, along with Sen. Dawn Hill of York, the assistant Democratic leader and member of the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee.
The legislation, which passed the House and Senate by a two-thirds majority and was signed by the governor, requires the Maine Public Utilities Commission to issue a request for proposals to procure energy from biomass power plants for a two-year term. The new law requires the Public Utilities Commission to consider the economic benefits of a project, such as payments to Maine-based loggers, when comparing bids, and authorizes the commission to award an above-market contract or contracts.
This provides a lifeline not just to the biomass power plants, but to the sawmills and pellet mills that sell residuals to them and the loggers that supply wood chips, sustaining well-paying jobs at the plants, at the mills and in the woods.
The biomass power industry is struggling financially because of record-low electricity prices. The financial challenges faced by the two biomass power plants in Aroostook County — ReEnergy Ashland and ReEnergy Fort Fairfield — are compounded by the fact that they are required to pay transmission-out charges to wheel their power out of the Northern Maine Independent System Administrator grid and into New Brunswick to access the ISO-New England power grid. This power export is necessary in order for the facilities to sell renewable energy credits in Connecticut, which represent a critical underpinning of the facilities’ business models.
The revenue from biomass — low-value tree tops, limbs, chips and sawdust — is part of the business plan of virtually every logger, sawmill and pellet mill in Aroostook County. The ReEnergy plants in The County together spend $44.6 million annually on fuel purchases and other operating expenses. They support 51 direct jobs and 320 indirect jobs, and supply 544,000 megawatt-hours of electricity — enough to supply 71,000 homes.
The two plants pay upwards of $800,000 in annual property taxes. They purchase nearly 1 million tons of biomass material, including mill waste. They are a critical outlet for residue from the J.D. Irving sawmill and other mills.
An estimated 6,800 forest-related jobs are based in Aroostook County. Thanks to the hard work and forward-thinking actions of legislators and LePage, those jobs have become more secure. We look forward to working with these state officials to ensure that the forest products industry value chain remains robust and grows in the years to come.
Robert Dorsey is president and CEO of the Aroostook Partnership.