How much risk should taxpayers assume?



Late last year, Maine’s Public Utilities Commission awarded subsidies worth $13.4-million to two alternative energy companies to restart four of Maine’s biomass plants — two in Aroostook County at Ashland and Fort Fairfield, one in Penobscot County at West Enfield and one in Washington County at Jonesboro.

ReEnergy would operate the two northern Maine facilities, restoring jobs and providing Maine’s loggers a place to haul wood chips and logs for energy generation. Stored Solar, a division of the French energy company Capergy, would work the other two sites. Both companies presented ambitious plans for jobs and economic generation as conditions of their subsidies — 42 jobs and 500,000 tons of biomass each year, plus $2.5-million in capital expenditures during Year One.

Stored Solar went so far as to say that they planned to repurpose the sites for energy parks and biofuel energy production (fuels from wood) as well as aquaculture and greenhouses powered by the steam produced from the biomass process. With some success in Europe, the challenging concept passed muster with the PUC. Investors, while reserved, remained optimistic. So were the members of the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine as well as the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine, two parties standing to gain significantly from the ambitious new work.

Then, three weeks ago, the wheels apparently fell off for Stored Solar as loggers and other vendors claimed that they had not been paid for over a month. A dozen family-owned logging contractors’ halted deliveries to West Enfield and Jonesboro, while the ReEnergy sites remained active, with loggers getting paid.

The status of Stored Solar which has been paid $602,000 in state subsidies so far this year is not yet clear, although regulators have been told that loggers have been paid.

Biomass is viable — on a large scale. It is a high risk, high reward enterprise with a great upside for Maine and its vast woods industry if properly operated and properly supervised by the PUC. Should their greenhouse, aquaculture and wood fuel options also bear fruit, areas suffering from Maine’s closed paper mills could enjoy a huge win. Unfortunately, the downside is not just lost money, but lost opportunity to restore an essential component of our economy.

These four biomass projects merit the state’s continued firm support, despite the early hiccups. For Maine’s woodland owners and loggers, the stakes are high and the options discouraging.