For a few hours Friday morning, offices at the Robbins Lumber Mill in Searsmont were transformed into a Senate hearing room, where independent U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine presided over an Energy Committee field hearing on how rural industries could be strengthened by developments in energy technologies.
The Robbins family, for example, are in the process of installing a $36 million, 8.5 megawatt combined heat and power unit that is expected to reduce costs at the mill and sustain forestry jobs. The co-generation process at the mill involves a power station that can produce both electricity and heat. And when the source of the energy is a residual wood product such as sawdust or low-value wood cuttings, it saves money for the manufacturer and it also creates a demand for low-grade wood.
King says the Robbins mill energy project could serve as a model for other rural Maine industries that are desperately attempting to lower power costs.
“What we’re talking about here is a project that will make electricity but will use low-grade and waste wood,” he says. “It will provide steam for the kilns, it will provide steam for we hope an adjacent manufacturer or an adjacent user on the same property. It’ll provide ash that can be used in aggregate for roads or for land treatment. We’re going to use everything from the pig but the squeal.”
Industry stakeholders at the hearing offered suggestions for encouraging wider use of what’s known as CHP technology as well as support for King’s Biomass Thermal Utilization Act of 2017, bipartisan legislation that would establish a tax credit for business and home use of high-efficiency biomass heating equipment.
Alden Robbins, part of the fifth generation to operate the family lumber business in Searsmont, says federal legislation that would more easily permit the widespread use of CHP technology is key to the recovery of the Maine forest products industry.
“My sawmill struggles every year to bring in our raw material, because the loggers can no longer realize the revenue from the residuals and the low-grade pulp wood they once did,” he says.
King says his biomass legislation seeks to achieve parity between other forms of renewable energy and thermal biomass systems.
This story was originally published Oct. 6, 2017 at 5:01 p.m. ET.