On the eve of a crucial subsidy vote by state regulators, the owners of two beleaguered biomass power plants said that their multimillion-dollar investments are being undermined by unsubstantiated charges made by the head of Maine’s logging trade group.

Fahim and Kimberly Samaha say Dana Doran, executive director of the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine, is spreading false rumors that the Stored Solar LLC biomass plants in West Enfield and Jonesboro are in financial trouble and have laid off most of their workforce.

But the Samahas say the plants are currently in a planned shutdown because an early mud season has made timber harvesting difficult, and because demand for electricity has tapered off with mild weather. The plants will ramp up again in a couple of months, they said, along with timber harvesting activity to deliver fuel for high summer power demand in New England.

Statements to the contrary, the Samahas say, have the potential to scare off investors and create a negative impression of the company. The couple say they have invested a total of $13.5 million on buying the shuttered plants and returning them to service.

“Enough is enough,” Fahim Samaha said in an interview Tuesday with the Press Herald. “I’ve been quiet and decent, but we have a very important goal coming to Maine and we can no longer be on the defensive. We cannot bear all this harassment.”

It’s not clear what would be the logging group’s motivation to undermine Store Solar.

Specific charges against Doran by the Samahas are contained in a March 21 letter addressed to “The President” of the logging contractors. It references an earlier, Jan. 25 certified letter sent to Doran, in which Stored Solar accuses Doran of making false public statements that the company owes loggers and suppliers money.

The Samahas acknowledge problems making payments to suppliers as well as past-due property taxes early in 2017. Those cases have been well documented in the media. But they say accounts are current now, and Doran’s persistent comments appear to be part of an orchestrated campaign to harm Stored Solar.

Asked Tuesday to react to the charges, Doran said he hadn’t seen the letter and declined to comment. When the Press Herald offered to email him a copy, he said he would only respond directly to Stored Solar.

The newspaper also reached out to the president and second vice president of the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine. Tony Madden, the second vice president, said he hadn’t seen the letter but has full confidence in Doran. Scott Madden, the president, couldn’t be reached early Tuesday.

SUBSIDIES AND POLITICS

Stored Solar’s financial viability is important to Maine’s forest economy and renewable energy sector. That fact will come into sharp focus on Wednesday, when the Maine Public Utilities Commission votes on whether to approve a controversial subsidy meant to keep the company’s stand-alone biomass power plants alive, along with the jobs linked to operating and fueling them.

At issue is whether Stored Solar has adequately met the terms of a 2016 contract, part of a $13.4 million taxpayer-funded bailout approved by the Legislature.

The PUC staff has spent months trying to determine whether Stored Solar has created an agreed-upon number of jobs, purchased enough wood fuel and made sufficient capital improvements to earn its share of the money.

Last month, the staff determined that Stored Solar fell short in wood buying and investing, and recommended that the subsidy be trimmed by 20 percent. That would result in a payment of roughly $1.2 million.

But the logging contractors and some allied lawmakers say even that’s too much money.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers has drafted L.D. 1745, aimed at preventing the PUC from giving Stored Solar its subsidy. It also seeks to have the attorney general investigate the company.

“We’ve been holding off on legislative action, to see what the PUC does,” said Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, one of the sponsors.

Berry said he had heard “vague rumors” about layoffs, but said he wanted to “stay focused on the math.” The PUC, Berry said, will have to determine precisely whether Stored Solar has delivered on its promises.

“To the extent they haven’t,” he said, “then taxpayers deserve their money back.”

ASSESSING THE BENCHMARKS

But making these calculations is complicated, because they involve interpretations of how money should be spent on equipment and disputes over basic facts, such as how much wood was purchased. On Wednesday, the PUC will have to decide whether Stored Solar actually hit the performance benchmarks, as spelled out in its contract.

Maine’s biomass power plants use leftover wood from forestry operations and sawdust from lumber mills to make electricity. They’re a crucial outlet for low-grade fiber and a source of employment for hundreds of logging contractors and truckers in rural areas where paper mills have closed. But outdated technology means the plants are unable to compete with wholesale electric prices in New England, making them uneconomic without subsidies. The two-year bailout was intended to be a temporary bridge, to give plant owners time to diversify.

Stored Solar says it’s doing that, transforming West Enfield and Jonesboro into combined heat and power facilities that won’t need government support.

It says it’s working to attract businesses that can be set up next to the plants and buy excess heat, carbon dioxide and steam and electricity. The first so-called co-host will be Katahdin Shrimp Farm LLC, which has qualified for a conditional, $500,000 state loan. The Samahas say they have begun clearing land for the venture.

The shrimp farm is part of an effort to develop a biobased economy in rural Maine to find new uses for wood energy and bolster what’s left of the paper industry.

Stored Solar was supposed to buy 500,000 tons of low-grade wood from logging contractors, maintain more than 40 jobs and invest $2.5 million in the plants. The PUC staff found the company bought only 40 percent of the wood and invested only 60 percent of what was required.

In a document filed last week, Stored Solar attempts to clarify some discrepancies. It says it should be credited for spending more than $909,000 in logging equipment. The biomass industry in Washington County has declined so much, the company says, it couldn’t find enough wood chips to operate the Jonesboro plant.

In Tuesday’s interview, the Samahas said they hit a peak employment of 47 workers over the winter at the two plants, and hope to keep between 20 and 35 of them employed during the spring shutdown. They also will spend the time fixing failed equipment in West Enfield and upgrading both boilers.

Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or

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