Bio-energy group 'cautiously optimistic' about progress

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SOUTH PORTLAND—The Maine Renewable Energy Consortium is cautiously optimistic about meeting an ambitious timeline that could bring a commercial power plant to a portion of 85 acres of land off Highland Avenue.
The group, which first presented its idea to the City Council in July, said it expects to get its fiscal and technological houses in order by the close of the first quarter of 2009.
Barring any unforeseen delays, the group could have a site plan in front of the Planning Board by the middle of next year, according to David Martin, a former Exxon Mobil engineer spearheading the process.
“Right now, we haven’t hit a roadblock,” Martin said. “We’re cautiously optimistic.”
MREC public relations director Jim Damicis said the project is moving along as it should. “We have a lot more in place than when we first presented it,” Damicis said.
City councilors were initially skeptical of the plan, noting its lack of details. At the time, some suggested that they would have to see, hear and smell the type of facility the consortium is seeking and is said to be in demonstration phases across the country.
“Our thinking is ‘tell us where they’ve got one and we’ll go see it,'” said City Councilor Maxine Beecher, who lives near the proposed site. “I haven’t been able to get a lot of information.”
Martin said the consortium is about 60 days away from being able to provide many of the answers. Experts are currently evaluating the plan and collecting data that will address both the benefits and risks.
Martin said the group does not plan to ask for any exceptions or variances for the plant. “We’re trying to do this within the existing regulations,” he said.
The Maine Renewable Energy Consortium is a small group of investors, engineers and developers founded by Martin, Jim Talbot of T&T Development and South Portland landowner Gordon Hurtubise.
The group wants to build a power plant fed by wood chips on a portion of 85 acres of land on outer Highland Avenue, a parcel comprised mostly of the Hurtubise property and a capped city landfill.
The project consists of three phases, the first of which is building the wood-fired electrical plant near the Rigby Railyard, where wood could potentially be brought in by train.
Some of the electricity produced would be used to power a Phase II fermentation bio-reactor, which would use organic materials like sugar beets, potatoes and/or seaweed to create two chemicals: iso-butanol, a solvent used in paint thinner, brake fluid and plastics, and acetone, the primary ingredient in nail polish remover which can also be used as an automotive fuel additive.
Any additional electricity would be sold back to the ISO-New England Power grid.
Phase III would consist of using the distilled water and carbon dioxide from the fermentation process to operate a greenhouse on the city’s capped landfill, but the council would have to approve that use.
The group considers South Portland an ideal location for the power plant because of the potential market and the city’s location and transportation infrastructure, which would allow the group to get its materials by truck, rail or barge.
Martin said the group is still developing and testing technology that will capture emissions from the plant and convert it into power, which could be sold to neighboring businesses. Capturing as much by-product as possible is essential to the economic feasibility of the project, he said.
Energy from the plant would be cheaper for local businesses, he said, because the plant is expected to operate at 75-80 percent efficiency, meaning only 20-25 percent of the energy would not be converted to electricity.
Martin said the rate of production would be more efficient than a traditional coal-fired plant, whose energy conversion rate is only 35 percent.
Damicis said the group is looking to finance the $50 million to $70 million project through a combination of private investors and loans. Government grants will also be used, as long as they fit neatly with the project deadlines.
Martin said the main goal is to create an economically self-sustaining power plant throughout each of the three phases.
Assistant City Manager Erik Carson, also the city’s economic development director, said the project has a lot potential to expand an industrial tax base currently buoyed by the semiconductor industry and to put South Portland on a path toward energy independence.
“It could really put the city on the map for creative ideas,” said Carson, noting that more information is needed before he could fully support the project. “It also allows for additional access to Rigby Yard.”
City councilors, however, are cautious and content to move at a slower pace. Beecher said she and her constituents are primarily concerned about the odor that may be associated with the Phase II fermentation bio-reactor.
“We have a thing called a westerly wind and that could likely bring that odor to us,” Beecher said.
South Portland is one of several locations being considered for the project, but Martin did not specifically name other towns where the project might land.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net.
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