Voters in Searsmont will consider two articles at their annual town meeting April 2 related to the construction of a 7.5-megawatt biomass facility the Robbins family is trying to build at its sawmill.

The proposed wood-fired biomass plant, also known as a co-generation system, would burn bark, wood chips and sawdust, which would in turn power a steam turbine to generate electricity. Waste heat from the plant would be used to dry lumber and heat buildings at the sawmill, according to Maine Public Utilities Commission documents.

If it's built, the new biomass facility would essentially be a larger-scale version of an existing 1.2-megawatt biomass plant the company uses to dry lumber and heat buildings at the 40-acre complex next to Route 131. The existing biomass plant does not generate electricity, Catherine Robbins-Halsted said.

Last December, MPUC issued an order that directs Central Maine Power negotiate a contract with Georges River Energy LLC, a subsidiary of Robbins Lumber, to purchase electricity generated by the plant at a rate of 9.9 cents per kilowatt hour for a 20-year period.

The project at Robbins Lumber is one of four that MPUC selected to participate in the state's Community-Based Renewable Energy Program.

Members of the Robbins family provided an overview of the project at a public hearing March 22. Alden Robbins, vice president/sales manager, said the closure of paper mills throughout the state has an impact on Robbins Lumber because the company used to be able to sell the wood chips it generates in the course of processing logs.

However, paper mills have reduced or stopped the quantity of chips they are buying. Robbins Lumber is unable to burn all of the 90 tons of chips it produces daily, Alden Robbins said. However, Robbins-Halsted said the new facility would be able to burn all of the chips the sawmill produces and the company would still need to buy tree-length pulp wood to chip up and burn.

As proposed, the new co-generation plant would be sited to the south of the company's sawmill and office buildings. A drawing of the proposed plant shows a fuel house, turbine/generator room, water treatment, boiler house and other infrastructure related to its operation.

All of the power generated by the co-generation plant would go onto the grid, Robbins-Halsted said.

Robbins Lumber President James A. Robbins said the company's existing co-generation plant would be used as a backup system. It was estimated the new plant would create about nine to 10 new jobs, but also preserve existing jobs at the mill, as well as give loggers a market for their pulp wood.

Residents will hear a condensed version of the March 22 presentation at the April 2 town meeting before they consider two warrant articles related to the project. The first article will ask voters to endorse a resolution indicating they support the project.

The second warrant article will ask residents to approve a new 30-year Tax Increment Financing district for Georges River Energy for the new co-generation plant. Residents also will be asked to amend the existing Robbins Lumber TIF district to extend it from 20 to 30 years.

Creating a TIF district for the co-generation plant is important, Attorney Jon Pottle of Eaton Peabody explained, because it allows a town to shelter new tax value. With an estimated cost to build of $30 million to $35 million for the new co-generation plant, such an increase to the town's valuation would reduce its state subsidy for education and revenue sharing, Pottle said.

Robbins-Halsted said the new biomass plant would be placed in a credit enhancement TIF.

Members of the Robbins family said their business pays about $187,000 in taxes a year and the new plant would generate an additional $100,000 in taxes per year. The additional tax revenue is based on the estimated value of the new facility.

Taxes were a concern raised by several in attendance who asked if the project would have an impact on residents. Several times throughout the meeting, it was stated the project would not increase taxes for residents.

Another concern voiced during the meeting was whether the new plant would generate additional noise or have an impact on air quality.

With respect to noise issues, James and Alden Robbins said the new plant would be comparable to the existing boiler on the property. One resident described hearing a clanking and low-grade whining coming from the property. The Robbinses said that noise was probably related to saw mill operations and the new project should not increase noise.

“We're not going to let Jenness [Robbins] put in a steam whistle,” Alden Robbins joked.

The project does require Department of Environmental Protection permitting but the particulates discharged by the new plant should be cleaner than those currently released by the existing boiler, members of the Robbins family said.

Barring any extensions by the state to the life of TIF districts, at the end of the 30-year period, the value of the plant at that time would be added to the town's assessment. However, it was noted that the bulk of the plant is personal property, which will depreciate in value during the TIF district's life span.

“We wouldn't be doing this [project] if we didn't think it was good for the town,” Robbins-Halsted said.

While the Robbinses are still uncertain how they will finance the project, they have until the end of 2018 to begin generating power under the terms of the Community-Based Renewable Energy Program.

Legislation is being considered to have Maine Public Utilities Commission seek competitive bids and negotiate contracts with for 120 megawatts of renewable energy for five years, according to The Portland Press Herald. The bill is an effort to help ailing biomass plants, particularly in northern parts of the state. However, the legislation is opposed by MPUC and utility companies because it would increase rates for customers, according to The Portland Press Herald.

Searsmont residents will gather in the lower level of the Community Building Saturday, April 2, at 9 a.m. for their annual town meeting.