A handful of companies are proposing to turn former Maine paper mills into refineries that create eco-friendly fuels and fertilizers from wood, raising hopes they could generate economic activity in areas linked to the traditional forestry economy of Maine. the state.
Ensyn Fuels Inc. applied this week for a state license to open a biorefinery on the site of the former Great Northern Paper Co. mill in East Millinocket. The Ottawa company would use thermal technology to convert biomass, such as wood chips, into renewable heating oil.
Portland-based Standard Biocarbon signed a lease last year with East Millinocket to also open a biorefinery on the site of the old factory to produce a sustainable fertilizer alternative called biochar. The company also announced plans last week to produce biochar at the Pleasant River Lumber plant in Enfield, spokesman Kelley Attenborough said.
And Biofine Developments Northeast Inc. announced last summer that it had reached an agreement with the city of Lincoln to open a biofuels refinery on the site of Lincoln’s former paper and tissue mill. The company produces ethyl levulinate, a fuel oil substitute.
The proposals offer some hope to communities that lost hundreds of jobs when their mills closed and to loggers who lost customers for their wood waste. But the companies behind the projects and those who work with them are reluctant to promise that these ideas will materialize and revitalize their communities, after so many past promises of economic revitalization have never materialized.
Ensyn chose the East Millinocket plant because of Maine’s “regulatory friendly environment” and its proximity to the company’s customer base in the Northeast, President Lee Torrens said.
Still, Torrens said he was “very cautious” about the impact Ensyn might have on the local economy, citing previous proposals that promised to revitalize the Katahdin region and fell short.
“Maine is just riddled with people who promised the moon and didn’t deliver,” he said.
That applies to Lincoln, City Manager Rick Bronson said.
BDNE and Lincoln are negotiating a joint development agreement, and the city is applying for federal grants to clean up the plant site, Bronson said. Economic Development Director Jay Hardy said BDNE hopes to open its refinery by the end of 2023.
Still, Bronson said he was hesitant to make any definitive statements about when the old factory will be operational.
LignaTerra Global, a North Carolina-based cross-laminated timber manufacturer, announced plans in 2019 to open a plant there, but has yet to begin.
“They announced this on a Friday,” Bronson said. “The following Monday, I received a call from a citizen [asking]where does he go to apply for a job? »
A spokesperson for LignaTerra said that the rising cost of machine parts and supply chain challenges have “generated a redesign of a few elements of the [company’s] overall strategy,” but did not respond to a follow-up question asking what that meant for his plans at Lincoln.
James Beaupre, director of industrial cooperation at the University of Maine, said Maine still has a “vibrant wood and lumber industry” and that biorefineries could help Maine diversify its forest economy and ensure more uses of wood waste.
Refineries offer the possibility of using all kinds of wood waste, such as wood chips and sawdust, which cannot be used for lumber, Beaupre said.
Standard Biocarbon, the company that plans to open biorefineries in Enfield and East Millinocket, produces biochar by converting wood chips, through a process called pyrolysis, into a kind of charcoal that traps carbon instead of releasing it. release into the atmosphere and contribute to climate change.
Fred Horton, managing director of Standard Biocarbon, told the Bangor Daily News last August that the company plans to use 12,000 tonnes of woodchips from nearby furniture and mulch companies to produce 3,000 tonnes of biochar per year. The deal would make it the largest biochar producer on the East Coast.
Each company has its own chemical operations and processes to produce wood products, so it’s difficult to quantify how many jobs each plant would create, Beaupre said.
“Sometimes it can mean three jobs, sometimes it can take a few hundred jobs, depending on the size of the equipment and the amount of [raw material] that you can bring,” he said.
Dana Doran, executive director of the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine, said having more companies like Ensyn and Standard Biocarbon to use wood waste from loggers would be beneficial for forest management.
Between 2012 and 2016, Maine lost six factories in Millinocket, East Millinocket, Lincoln, Bucksport, Madison and, temporarily, Old Town. All accepted wood waste from the loggers, Doran said.
The loss of these six mills means fewer trees have been harvested, leading to a deterioration in forest health, he said.
Refineries would provide new sources for loggers to discharge their waste wood, although their input was far from what the paper mills absorbed. He mentioned the request from Ensyn, which said it would need 165,000 tonnes of timber a year if its East Millinocket operation was approved. .
“In the grand scheme of things, we’re not even talking about half a million tons of lumber between the three or four projects that are sort of on the drawing board,” Doran said.
“That’s less than 10 percent of the wood we’ve lost over the last decade,” he said. “It’s not a lot of wood, but it’s important, because it’s something, and it’s beneficial not only for the entrepreneurs for the market, but it’s also beneficial for the forest.”