The worldwide decline in the demand for paper has sent falling a series of dominoes, starting with marked job loss and temporary shutdowns at Maine paper mills, and leading eventually to outright closures and the devastation of the communities and ancillary businesses that were supported by the paper industry.

Now, another domino in that line is wobbling. The future of Maine’s biomass plants is being threatened by changing energy policies in the states where they sell their output, and by the low price of oil and natural gas.

If they are forced to shut down, the plants could take with them the sawmills and logging companies that depend on biomass to maintain slim profits, and deal yet another hit to the communities that rely on the forest products industry, and that are already struggling to survive.

DUAL THREAT

Biomass – the burning of wood waste to create energy – generates more than a quarter of Maine’s electricity: enough for 200,000 homes. Maine’s standalone biomass plants also sell a significant amount of energy to Massachusetts and Connecticut.

The plants also create a market for the tons of low-value wood chips, tree trimmings and sawdust that are a byproduct of Maine’s forest products industry, and thus support the many sawmills, loggers, truck drivers and other workers that feed that industry.

But to be attractive to energy purchasers, biomass requires policies that put it on par with other renewable power sources, and changes in policy in Massachusetts and Connecticut are threatening demand for the energy produced by the plants in Maine.

At the same time, falling prices for fossil fuels have made biomass energy less attractive, and they’ve done the same for wood pellets, another Maine industry that provides a market for waste wood.

That is an existential threat to biomass plants and pellet mills.

Last month alone, a pellet mill in Athens that employs 28 workers and utilizes roughly 200 loggers and drivers shut down, while one in Corinth laid off a quarter of its workforce and scaled back production. Another, in Ashland, has cut back to a skeleton crew.

Two biomass plants, in West Enfield and Jonesboro, are scheduled to close in March, and four others could close in 2018. Those six plants employ a total of 148 people.

What’s more, the plants spend tens of millions of dollars on wood waste, buying what isn’t turned into lumber, pallets, wood chips or firewood. Without them, the sawmills would lose that revenue, which is often a matter of life and death for the mills and the hundreds of people who make a living through them.

“If there was no biomass, the sawmill industry in the state would be in big trouble,” Donnie Isaacson, vice president of PalletOne/Isaacson Lumber Co. in Livermore Falls, told the Maine Sunday Telegram. “Beyond a place to get rid of tons of waste wood, it has a huge value. It’s the difference between profit and loss.”

Maine cannot afford to lose these jobs, particularly as they are in areas with higher-than-average unemployment and underemployment, where the loss of traditional industries has hit especially hard.

HOMEGROWN ENERGY

To help avoid that outcome, Maine should pursue policies favorable to biomass, even if that means marginally pushing up energy rates with above-market contracts. Any rate increase would be more than offset by the economic benefits of a homegrown energy supply that also means so much to the forest products industry.

Policymakers in Massachusetts and Connecticut have to be convinced of the benefits of biomass as well, so that it is placed on the same level with other renewables.

Now, those states are headed in the wrong direction. A new law in Massachusetts makes it impossible for some Maine biomass plants to sell power there, the result of work by people who reject biomass as a renewable source of energy, comparing it often to coal, as both coal and wood emit carbon when burned.

The difference, however, is that properly maintained forests regrow over years, not millenniums, and their very presence helps remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Biomass is, in the long view, carbon neutral, as it encourages sustainable woodland management.

In that way, the industry can help keep Maine forests healthy, just as it does the same to the communities and businesses that rely on those forests.