by Mal Leary
Maine Public news story
Lawmakers in Augusta are considering a bill that seeks to bail out the state’s ailing biomass industry by requiring consumers to purchase higher-priced power from those plants.
Supporters say the measure is needed to protect an important industry, but opponents say the market should prevail. Both sides took their case to the State House today.
The majority of the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee has already voted against the legislation, but supporters are hoping to convince lawmakers to pass it, or some version of it. Logger Tom Cushman says the forestry industry is struggling and needs help to survive.
“With so many mill closures in the last 12 months, it only makes sense to control what we can and strengthen a market that supports the entire forest industry,” he says. “This market keeps our forest healthy, enables small landowners’ revenue to keep their properties undeveloped and creates energy that is 100 percent renewable.”
Ultra-low prices for electricity produced using natural gas have hurt the state’s biomass sector. And the loss of Maine’s biomass market would be a huge blow to the logging industry, according to the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine, which estimates that Maine will lose 400 jobs at biomass plants and at least another 900 jobs in related fields such as logging.
The group says total economic losses to the state could be as high as $300 million per year.
For logger Steve Hanington, it’s more personal — having to lay off workers at his family business.
“Our company has been in business for 58 years,” he says. “This is the tough part — lost jobs. Not no fault of mine, I have hustled and worked. Thirteen permanent since September.”
And he expects more layoffs in the weeks ahead.
Hanington is among those urging lawmakers adopt the legislation, which would help the forest products industry. But opponents, including many members of the energy committee, cite the cost of the bill.
According to CMP it could increase a typical home monthly bill by more than $2. For large industrial users, it would increase expenses by hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
“It’s not a matter of our being asked to subsidize a promising new technology, it a matter of our being asked to subsidize power plants, which are frankly no longer as efficient as their competition,” says Tony Buxton, the lawyer for the Industrial Energy Consumer Group.
The legislation is also opposed by the Natural Resources Council of Maine. The group’s Nick Bennett says that existing wood-to-energy plants are inefficient and should not be subsidized.
“Although wood is a renewable, local fuel that can displace fossil fuels, we have to use it efficiently,” he says. “Standalone electric biomass plants are the least efficient use of wood for energy — they are only 20-25 percent efficient.”
According to CMP, biomass plants have received more than $2.6 billion in ratepayer subsidies over the last two decades. And even with those subsidies, half of them have closed because they weren’t competitive.
Buxton says his members do support granting the wood products industry a tax break, exempting from the state sales tax the fuel used in off-road machinery.