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South Portland councilors warm to wood-to-energy plant proposal

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South Portland councilors warm to wood-to-energy plant proposal

SOUTH PORTLAND — Partners in a  local consortium with plans for a renewable energy power plant on Highland Avenue told the City Council on Monday they are on track for construction next summer, pending state and local permits.

The Maine Renewable Energy Consortium plans a 10-megawatt plant near Duck Pond and Rigby Yard. The plant would be fed by low-value, non-pulp grade wood scraps and electricity would be generated through a thermal heating and cooling cycle by burning the wood chips.

MREC facilities coordinator David Martin, a former engineer for ExxonMobil, said the plant would not impact neighbors on Highland Avenue. He said the profitability of the plant depends of its ability to capture and reuse as much steam as possible. Martin said the plant would operate at 85 percent efficiency, in comparison to the 34 percent efficiency of coal-fired power plants.

Martin said the plant would be able to provide electricity to industries within a three-mile loop of the facility. The consortium, he said, is negotiating to supply energy to Hannaford Bros. Co. and Portland Shellfish Co.. Excess energy, he said, would be sold back to the regional power grid. 

The project is the first of a two-phase plan to build the state's first "eco-park." While the first phase would convert wood to electricity, the second phase would add a facility capable of producing butanol – a fuel similar to ethanol, but not made from food-stock, and said to perform better in colder temperatures. Martin said the consortium and its business partners are still researching the logistics of phase two.   

Consortium spokesman Jim Damicis said the group is seeking a combination of private and public funding for the first phase of the project, projected to cost between $23 million and $27 million. He said the group is applying for stimulus funds earmarked for renewable energy at the federal and state levels, while also taking advantage of the state's Pine Tree Zone, a state tax incentive program recently expanded to include all of Cumberland County. 

Meanwhile, Damicis said the group will likely seek Tax Increment Financing through the city in addition to assistance applying for industrial and energy bonds. 

Damicis said the project would likely employ 30 to 40 people during its construction phase and employ eight to 10 people to operate the phase one plant. Damicis said surrounding businesses would stand a better of chance of retaining jobs, since the plant would likely reduce – and ideally stabilize – energy costs.

But, Damicis said of the job-retention claim, "it's a little hard to prove this."

Colchester Drive resident Peter Stocks said he supports efforts to generate green power, but asked the council to think twice before giving the consortium a tax break. 

"We can't afford to give up revenue in the form of tax credits," Stocks said. "I would hope the city would maximize any value we might get from this." 

Councilors were generally supportive of the effort to bring renewable energy production to the state. But since the first phase of the project employs relatively new technology and the second phase has never been done before, councilors were cautious about fully endorsing the plan.

Although wood scraps would ideally be transported to the site by rail via Rigby Yard, Martin said trucks would likely bring in the product. Councilor Maxine Beecher said she was concerned about adding a high volume of truck traffic on Highland Avenue, as well as other nuisances. 

"At this point, I'm pleased," Beecher said. "But I'm going to be keeping my eyes out – and my ears and my nose."

Martin said a similar wood-to-electricity plant is in Middlebury, Vt., and Councilor Linda Boudreau said the council should consider conducting a site visit. 

Mayor Tom Blake predicted there would be public resistance to the power plant, because of a 50-foot emissions stack it requires. However, Blake said the consortium could use the project as a model for other communities to show how renewable energy can coexist with neighbors, possibly by building the plant to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards.

"You have a chance to build this process and make it shine," Blake said. 

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