Maine law to protect biomass jobs - measure helps workers in wood products

Measure provides temporary safety net to sustain jobs in industry vital to rural Maine 

By Ramona du Houx

With six mills closures in Maine within a year workers in the wood products field have found themselves worried about their futures. The latest mill shut down in Madison has sent the community realing. While some mills were also producing biomass, when they closed some of those operations also ended. Madison mill's will continue - but for how long?

LD 1676, An Act To Establish a Process for Procurement of Renewable Resources, prevents the loss of more than 1,000 jobs in Maine’s biomass industry.

“This is a bridge strategy to protect an industry that is vital to the economy of rural Maine. My community is at the crossroads of this crisis. These are my friends and neighbors,” said House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan. “This is a temporary safety net that keeps loggers working in the woods, truckers on the road and food on their families’ tables while giving the industry some time to adjust to rapid changes in the wood products industry.”

LD 1676, An Act To Establish a Process for Procurement of Renewable Resources would fund two-year, 80 megawatt contracts to biomass facilities at an annual cost of no greater than $6.7 million to the unallocated general fund surplus, also known as the “cascade.”

Biomass was encouraged and incentives were awarded to businesses during the Baldacci admnistration, as a new avenue to produce home grown alternative energy and as a measure to help troubled paper mills. It made logical business sense to use a byproduct produced by the mills as energy to run the mills.

“This is a time for us to come together as one Maine. Yes, the epicenter of this calamity is in rural Maine, but its effects will ripple throughout our state. We will all feel the effects if we allow an entire industry to collapse. We can’t just stand by and watch it happen,” said Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, House chair of the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee.

According to the Biomass Power Association, the industry supports nearly 150 direct jobs and 900 indirect ones and spends $115 million annually when the mills are operating.

(Lincoln mill, photo Ramona du Houx)

“I’m pleased that the House came together to pass this bipartisan bill,” said Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick. “It’s not perfect, but it is a critical piece of legislation that will save Maine jobs.” 

The proposal defines biomass generators that use Maine wood products as the only beneficiaries and further specifies core provisions to establish accountability, including performance measures and an annual review of economic effectiveness. 

It also includes commonsense protections to ensure that any facility bidding for contracts are operational for at least 60 days before the contract is awarded.