South Portland councilors fired up about wood-to-energy power plant

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SOUTH PORTLAND — A trip to Vermont by two city councilors seems to have swayed their support for a wood-fueled power plant near Rigby Yard.

Councilors Maxine Beecher and Jim Hughes traveled to Middlebury, Vt., on Nov. 17 with Assistant City Manager Erik Carson and representatives from the Maine Renewable Energy Consortium, a local group of investors proposing to build a power plant off Duck Pond Road. 

The group visited two power plants similar to the one being proposed in South Portland. The plants convert tree tops, limbs and leaves into electricity, steam and water by burning not only the raw material, but also the gases. 

The project is the first of a two-phase plan to build the state’s first “eco-park.” The first phase, estimated to cost $23 million to $27 million, would convert wood to electricity, steam and water. The second phase would add a facility capable of producing butanol, a fuel similar to ethanol, but not made from food stock.  

MREC has twice presented its project to the City Council in workshops and was met with skepticism. Councilors were concerned about a 50-foot smoke stack included in the proposal, which the developers insisted would not produce any odor or particles. 

Both councilors on Wednesday confirmed that description.

“I was impressed,” said Beecher, who represents the district where the power plant is proposed. “If you can have a power plant sitting in the middle of a small congested area and there’s no smoke, no smell and no ash falling on people, it is a truly remarkable process – no question about it.” 

Hughes said he was impressed by not only the lack of odor, but also the lack of noise from the electricity-producing turbines. 

“You could carry on a conversation standing right next to it,” Hughes said. 

He said plant workers said the stack emits a white cloud of stream during the winter, but it is odorless and clean. Hughes also noted that ash produced by the boiler is collected and used for landscapping, because it decreases the acidity of the soil. 

“It’s a very clean-burning thing,” he said. “You never see any black smoke or particulate.” 

The Vermont power plant, however, is only a quarter of the size being proposed in South Portland, which would be built on 18.5 acres of land. Some of the power would be sold to Hannaford Bros.’ distribution center and Portland Shellfish on Rumery Road.

Although wood stock is trucked in to supply the Vermont plant, the nearly 400 tons that would be required every day to fuel the South Portland plant would be shipped in by trains from Rigby Yard. 

Also, the Vermont plants did not include the second, butanol-producing phase.

The proposed site on Duck Pond Road is currently zone for industrial uses, so no change would be needed. But Carson said MREC is seeking the council’s support, because it will likely request tax increment financing for the project. MREC is also seeking the city’s assistance with permitting, he said. 

Carson said the trip also gave councilors information they could use if the city decides to establish its own wood-fueled power company to supply electricity to National Semiconductor and Fairchild Semiconductor.  

While Beecher and Hughes seem to be sold on the wood-to-energy portion of the proposal, which would employ 30 to 40 people during construction and 10 people to operate the 10 megawatt-plant, the jury is still out on the second, chemical-producing stage of MREC’s proposal.

“At this point, we’re only talking about this particular (electricity-producing) phase,” Beecher said. “(The second phase) is a whole other process.”

Carson said MREC provided transportation to Vermont and paid for food and tolls.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or