#MBNext16: Charlotte Mace is driven to cement Maine's place in a biobased future

BY James McCarthy

Photo / Tim Greenway
Photo / Tim Greenway
Charlotte Mace, the executive director of Portland-based Biobased Maine.

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The closure of five paper mills and two biomass power plants in Maine since 2013 hits close to home for Charlotte Mace, executive director of Biobased Maine. Both of her grandfathers worked at the former S.D. Warren paper mill in Westbrook, now owned by Sappi North America and one of a half-dozen pulp and paper mills still operating in Maine. Her father owns a tree farm.

“I grew up in the woods with a dad who knows how to manage a woodlot,” she says of her growing-up years in western Maine.

That first-hand knowledge of how important papermaking has been to thousands of Maine workers and their families is one reason why Mace is so passionate about the emerging biobased manufacturing sector and its potential to create new opportunities for adding value to Maine's vast forest resources in a time of rapid change and transition for the rural communities that have lost their major employer and taxpayer. As she sees it, the state has a unique opportunity to become a global leader in making products from renewable materials derived from trees, agricultural waste and marine algae that will create good-paying jobs to replace those that have been lost in rural Maine.

“There's sharply rising global demand for renewable resources that come from forest, farm and sea,” she says. “Virtually any biobased products you can think of — chemicals, bioplastics, advanced biofuels — they have double-digit annual growth. Maine deserves some of that market. We have a workforce with a strong work ethic. We have unique transportation assets, including three deep water ports. We have world-class research and development capabilities at the University of Maine and our other colleges. We have an amazing forest asset with the highest percentage of trees that are sustainably harvested in the United States.”

Mace's efforts to make Maine a world leader in biobased manufacturing got a big boost this summer, when the U.S. Economic Development Administration awarded a $519,930 grant to Biobased Maine as part of a three-year $856,549 project in partnership with the University of Maine to develop a “road map” to advance biobased manufacturing in Maine. Grant funds also will be used to market Maine's biobased assets to investors in new technologies and processes and provide technical assistance to help Maine forest products manufacturers and users implement new biobased technologies.

Mace, who became Biobased Maine's first full-time director in September 2014, already is working with other stakeholders on completing the road map for rebuilding Maine's rural economy by creating opportunities to make more bio-products, biofuel and biomass power within the state.

The road map will include:

  • a biomass cost study

  • an inventory of industrial infrastructure that might be suitable for biobased manufacturing

  • assessments of the state's transportation infrastructure and workforce

  • identifying mills that might be underutilized and could benefit from new sources of revenue from core biobased materials extracted from wood pulp.

Mace expects the completed road map will make a strong business case for Maine as an ideal location for biobased manufacturing. “Once we have the data, we will be marketing it to an industry that is growing,” she says. “Then we do the matchmaking and bring in the investment partners to complete the deal. That matchmaking already is beginning to happen.”

“The Department of Commerce recognizes our project has the potential to grow jobs in rural Maine,” she adds, citing the EDA's estimate that 195 or more jobs would be created in Maine if one or more mills begin producing from wood fiber the cellulosic sugars that are the building block of a host of biobased alternatives to petroleum-based plastics and fuels. “They don't give out money without good reason to believe there will be return on that investment.”

Mace says a 2014 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported the country's biobased industry has an estimated value of $369 billion, with four million workers and a market for bioplastics that is increasing by 20% to 30% per year. A separate study by the Biotechnology Industry Organization estimates that U.S.-based jobs for the renewable chemicals sector will rise from approximately 40,000 jobs in 2011, which represents 3% to 4% of all chemical sales, to more than 237,000 jobs by 2025 and approximately 20% of total chemical sales.

She says there's no reason Maine can't participate in those trajectories of growth.

“Maine is in play,” she says. “Maine has got to be a player too. My goal is to move the whole sector and get it growing our local economies again, with good-paying jobs, and making products that the whole world wants. Good manufacturing jobs is what will alleviate the stress in rural Maine.”