PORTLAND, Maine — The operator of a state-subsidized biomass plant in West Enfield said Friday that it has a letter of intent with a pepper grower interested in building a greenhouse that would buy its waste heat, carbon dioxide and electricity.
Bill Harrington, vice president of Stored Solar LLC, announced the pending deal during a forum in Hallowell detailing current challenges for the state’s biomass industry and opportunities for the state’s broader forest economy.
“We knew from the start that just generating electricity at a standalone power plant is not a good economic model,” Harrington said.
Harrington did not disclose the name of the producer but said they have a letter of intent for a greenhouse in West Enfield that they hope will be built sometime in 2018. He noted the plan is “still in the study and development phase.”
The development is part of the company’s broader plan for “biomass energy parks” that would bring in customers not just for electricity but other biomass byproducts Harrington said it’s necessary to sell in order to build a viable business.
Industry experts confirmed those challenges for biomass producers, with cheap oil and natural gas making it impossible for biomass plants to compete on the regional wholesale market.
“Biomass is not a great business to be in today,” said Eric Kingsley, a vice president with the forest products consultancy Innovative Natural Resource Solutions LLC.
The potential greenhouse deal comes as Stored Solar has apparently encountered financial trouble, with loggers saying they’ve not been paid for deliveries to Stored Solar’s plants in Jonesboro and West Enfield.
Gov. Paul LePage has asked regulators to change the rules of the subsidy program benefitting Stored Solar and ReEnergy, but he’s not said what prompted the letter. ReEnergy told regulators it’s not because of them.
Harrington has declined comment about the payments.
Regulators asked Stored Solar on Wednesday to provide “an immediate update” on its financial status. It had not provided the update by Friday afternoon.
The letter of intent for a greenhouse is the first specific news of the company making some progress toward its bigger vision for “bioenergy parks” around its facilities, which Harrington said will be necessary to build both into viable businesses.
Until the end of 2018, Maine taxpayers are helping to keep the West Enfield and Jonesboro facilities afloat through subsidies for the company’s electricity generation.
Harrington said Friday that he views the subsidy as an “on-ramp” for getting customers that can use heat or other byproducts from the biomass generators to locate near the plants.
The company has proposed a massive $240 million project involving biomass plants throughout the state and the former Great Northern Paper mill site in East Millinocket, which it’s fighting in court to purchase. There, it hopes to build a biorefinery to turn wood into liquid fuel and other byproducts.
The bigger vision is also affiliated with Synthesis Venture Fund, which started the “Maine Born Global Challenge” to try and identify businesses that could partner with its biomass operations.
The company announced earlier this month during a conference in Washington, D.C. that it “pre-qualified’ 11 companies for the effort, according to BiofuelsDigest. The trade publication reported the companies were Core Biofuels, DMC, CRI, D4 Energy Group, Concord Blue, Ark Power Dynamics, NuFuels, Visolis, Phytonix, Renmatix and Sweetwater Energy.