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November 15, 2018 | last updated November 15, 2018 11:28 am

ReEnergy shuts down Fort Fairfield biomass plant

Courtesy / ReEnergy Holdings LLC
Courtesy / ReEnergy Holdings LLC
A view of ReEnergy Holdings LLC's biomass-to-electricity facility in Fort Fairfield, one of four biomass plants owned by the company in Maine. On Nov. 11, ReEnergy stopped operations at the 37-megawatt facility that employs 21 people.

About PLC of Maine

The Professional Logging Contractors of Maine was formed in 1995 to give independent logging contractors and sole proprietors a voice in a rapidly changing forest industry. A board of directors made up entirely of loggers makes the PLC the only logging organization in Maine run by loggers for loggers. The mission of the PLC is to promote logging as a profession, advocate for logging professionals, cultivate responsible forest management, and sustain a strong forest products industry.

ReEnergy Holdings, a New York-based power company, has closed its biomass-fueled electricity plant in Fort Fairfield.

The 37-megawatt facility, which opened in 1987 and employs 21 people, stopped operations on Nov. 11, The County reported Wednesday.

The plant runs on chipped tree branches and other low-value forest residue from timber harvesting operations in northern Maine.

Over recent years, ReEnergy's five biomass plants in the state have struggled financially amid declining rates for electricity.

"We have been operating in a very challenging market environment," ReEnergy spokeswoman Sarah Boggess told The County. "The operation is not financially viable due to this confluence of circumstances."

Dana Doran, executive director of the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine, expressed hope that the closure will be temporary given the plant's economic importance and support it has received by Maine lawmakers, Emera Maine, and the PLC over the past two years.

"Closing the Fort Fairfield facility will place increased hardships on Maine loggers and truckers and their families in northern Maine just before the holidays," Doran said in a news release. "While we are obviously disappointed by the prospect of a shutdown, we are hopeful that the facility can be reopened in the future to put Maine loggers and truckers back to work," Doran said in a news release.

Layoffs at the plant are scheduled for next month, although some staff may be relocated to ReEnergy's Ashland facility, according to The County.

"We are glad that the ReEnergy Ashland facility continues to operate and hope that Maine loggers and truckers are given priority for deliveries there," Doran said.

Why this matters

Photo / James McCarthy
Photo / James McCarthy
Dana Doran, executive director of the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine.

Beyond the loss of electricity it is capable of generating, PLC said the 37-megawatt Fort Fairfield facility is an important consumer of chipped limbs, tree tops and other low-value forest residue from timber harvesting operations in northern Maine, providing revenue to many Maine logging contractors as well as an efficient means to dispose of material that would otherwise end up in landfills or in piles on the forest floor.

In 2016, as Maine's biomass electric producers faced collapse due to a combination of factors including unusually low natural gas prices, the PLC led efforts to provide short-term support for the industry to remain in operation and make investments in efficiency and new technology that would enable it to be successful long-term.

The primary component in the "bridge" package approved by Maine lawmakers was two years of contract incentives funded by Maine taxpayers, as well as a comprehensive study of biomass opportunities in Maine to produce a roadmap for the future.

More recently, Emera Maine extended support to ReEnergy by providing a discount on the transmission charges paid by northern Maine generators that wheel their power into the ISO-New England grid.

"There is no doubt that the actions taken since 2016 prevented significant job losses and economic pain," Doran said. "Two years ago, Maine pulp and paper mills were closing at an unprecedented rate, and the situation for Maine loggers was critical. Stabilizing the biomass industry bought time during which logging contractors were able to adjust to the new realities of the forest economy, and today the pendulum has swung back to investment, expansion, and a much brighter future."

The PLC has estimated total economic losses to the state of Maine from the loss of the biomass industry could be as high as $300 million per year.

"Europe has embraced biomass as a reliable and renewable fuel source despite far less forest cover than Maine, and there is no doubt that with investment and a larger focus on cogeneration technology Maine's biomass energy sector can be highly successful," Doran said, characterizing biomass as a renewable, reliable, locally sourced fuel that supports Maine logging jobs and energy security while reducing use of fossil fuels.

Maine's loggers are a vital part of the state's forest products sector, which is worth an estimated $8.5 billion annually. Maine's logging industry contributes $882 million to the state's economy each year and supports more than 7,300 direct and indirect jobs in the state.

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