Adding value to Maine’s natural resources adds jobs and helps traditional industries transition

Editorial and photo by Ramona du Houx - February 16th, 2013 

Maine’s natural resources are the state’s foundation for economic growth. They always have been. They need to remain sustainable for a vibrant economy of innovation. New processes are helping to transition traditional industries for a new era of growth. By finding new ways to add value to the state’s resources rural communities are creating the jobs of the future. Clean technology innovation is a big part of Maine’s future

Across the state, Mainers cheered the news of the re-opening of the paper mill in Millinocket. Putting those workers back on the job was triggered by a deal brokered by the state with Cate Street Capital, an investment group based in Portsmouth, NH that specializes in renewable energy and green technology projects. Cate Street Capital had consulted a study which the Maine Technology Institute (MTI) funded several years ago, during the Baldacci administration, which recommended that Maine consider producing thermal, or torrified, wood. More than 200 workers returned to their jobs in East Millinocket because, in large part, of the research and foresight of MTI. Innovation counts.

When shuttered the Millinocket mills cast a dark shadow on a community that for generations had based their lives and livelihoods on manufacturing paper. When the news hit in 2007 Governor John Baldalcci, Congressman Mike Michaud and Sen. Susan Collins immediately consoled workers and promised action. Baldacci recommended that the company work with the Department of Economic and Community Development, MTI, and other state agencies to transition and transform the mill, like Verso paper mill had done in Bucksport or like Old Town Fuel and Fiber was doing.

The Maine Pulp and Paper Association, together with partners from Maine and Canada, applied to the Maine Technology Institute for a $200,000 grant that would enable them to look at the best, high-value use of Maine’s forest products in the future. With the grant, and the MTI study, they focused on the production of thermal, or torrefied, wood as a replacement for coal. The biomass-based, coal-like product is made into pellets. The process uses the same basic raw material – wood pulp– as paper. The market is strong particularly in Europe where power plants must meet tough emission standards.

That report with its recommendations was key in helping the mill transition. The mill is engaged in developing a process to make torrefied wood.

“The future is bright,” said Cate Street Capital spokesman Scott Tranchemontagne. “We have done our due diligence and are moving forward with torrefied wood.”

Maine’s natural resources are the state’s foundation for economic growth. They always have been. They need to remain sustainable for a vibrant economy of innovation. New processes are helping to transition traditional industries for a new era of growth. By finding new ways to add value to the state’s resources rural communities are creating the jobs of the future. Clean technology innovation is a big part of Maine’s future.

Recently, the US Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration awarded a $1.25 million grant to the Cleantech Innovations New England, in which MTI is a partner. Hopefully more projects of this nature will emerge in Maine.