With mills struggling, a Maine lumber firm is building a biomass plant

Posted March 11, 2017, at 9:10 a.m.

SEARSMONT, Maine — The shuttering and shrinking of paper mills has forced businesses across the forest products industry to take a fresh look at their approach.

At Robbins Lumber, a 136-year-old family-owned sawmill in Searsmont, the upheaval is prompting a big investment to become not just a lumber producer, but an energy producer.

Churning out boards, planks and beams by the truckload each day, Robbins Lumber in Searsmont ends up with a lot of leftovers.

Every day, the company’s saws and chippers produce about 90 tons of woodchips, enough to fill three truckloads. Those chips have been sold to paper mills to help fuel the papermaking operations. But with mills closing and downsizing across the state, the lost revenue stream could become a liability.

“If we don’t have that pulp market, it then becomes upside down and now becomes a waste stream for us,” said Jim A. Robbins, the company’s president. “That’s very much a concern on every sawmill radar screen right now.”

So the company is building a $36 million, 8.5 megawatt biomass plant, with capacity to sell about 7.5 megawatts to Central Maine Power. The family hopes the project will help bolster the local forest economy, while giving the lumberyard something to do with its residuals — chips, sawdust and bark — in the wake of the paper mill closures.

Robbins Lumber and CMP have ironed out a 20-year purchase agreement for the electricity produced by the biomass facility. The sawmill doesn’t produce enough residuals on its own to fuel the boiler’s 24-7 operations, so it will have to turn to its log suppliers, purchasing residuals from them to maintain a steady stream of fuel for the boiler.

They’ll need about 15 trailer loads per day to keep it running. Jim Robbins said the construction of the biomass plant should be a boost to local harvesters and woodlot owners, who also are looking for new places to send their residuals in the wake of mill closings.

Robbins has an existing biomass boiler that it uses to produce steam to heat the facility’s buildings and dry lumber in kilns. The new biomass building will share a wall with the existing one, but the new boiler will have better pollution controls and the ability to produce power that can be sent to the grid.

This biomass project is one of four approved by the state to take part in the Community-based Renewable Energy Program, which is aimed to encourage the development of locally owned electricity generating facilities.

The largest project of the four is the 9.9-megawatt solar farm proposal in the town of Monroe.

The Robbins biomass project is awaiting final approvals from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, after getting the local OK from Searsmont’s planning board earlier this month.

Robbins Lumber, which employs 105 people, delayed plans for an expansion to its pine sawing operations in order to pursue the biomass plant. Jim Robbins said that given industry uncertainty, it was important to figure out a future for the company’s residuals situation before growing.

Construction, headed up by Cianbro, should start soon after the final permits are granted. Robbins’ contract requires the company to start sending power to the grid by the end of 2018, but the owners hope to have the biomass plant up and running by May or June of next year.

The company expects to hire about six new employees, mostly Class 3 engineers, to oversee the new biomass facility.

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.

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