After two years of meeting tight government deadlines, a new biomass facility at Robbins Lumber is now "putting megawatts out onto the grid," according to company Vice President and Sales Manager Alden Robbins.

Guest speaker at the Feb. 14 meeting of the Searsmont Historical Society, Robbins discussed the Georges River Energy biomass facility, and the twists and turns leading to its power generation, as required, before the end of 2018.

The facility is an 8.5-megawatt biomass plant, Robbins said. Bark, wood chips and sawdust are burned to power a steam turbine to generate electricity. Waste heat from the plant is used to dry lumber and heat buildings at the sawmill.

"Rather than just producing power," Robbins said,"we're producing renewable energy to the grid while supplying thermal energy to Robbins Lumber, providing steam and heat for the facility."

In the mid 1970s, in the midst of an oil embargo when fuel prices were very high, Robbins said his Uncle Jenness and father Jim started burning biomass — any woody substance or by-products from the mill, or residuals from logging operations — to produce energy.

"Forty years later," Robbins said, "we are doing a similar operation, but on a larger scale."

Impetus for the project came from recent paper mill closures, he said, resulting in a reduced market for low-grade wood chips. Robbins Lumber generates about 90 tons of wood chips daily, he said, which it was unable to burn in its older 1.2-megawatt biomass plant.

"What that meant to us, as a lumber yard, is it left a big hole in the market for sawmill residuals, chips and low-grade pulp wood," Robbins said.

So the company started looking at what to do with residuals — looking at other markets and considering building a pellet mill.

During a visit to a pellet mill, he said, they learned of legislation enacted in 2009, called the Community Based Renewable Energy Program.

According to Robbins, the legislation encourages the construction of new renewable energy projects in Maine to increase the amount of renewable energy being produced and to increase the regional diversity of generation throughout the state to provide a higher level of grid reliability.

The program offered above-wholesale market rates to producers who were willing to make that investment.

"Other than that," Robbins said, "these projects don't get built."

Parameters stated projects had to be less than 10 megawatts, renewable and have community support.

"We took a stab at it," he said. "We had to file a formal application with the Public Utilities Commission. We had two weeks to do it from the time we found out the program was still accepting applications to when the program was closed."

Robbins said about two years ago the company learned they were awarded the contract. With the contract, he said, "we could go to a bank and get financing and start construction on the project."

The Georges River Energy project was one of four selected to participate in the state program.

But there was a catch. Because of the nature of the legislation and how it was written, all the projects had to be producing power by the end of 2018, or the contract was null and void, Robbins said.

In two years, the company would have to go from planning, permitting, financing, construction and completion to producing energy to the grid, he said.

Robbins considers the project still in the "commissioning stage," especially on the power generation end of things, but said "we did successfully put megawatts out onto the grid" in November 2018.

"That was a very, very big date for us," he said. "We had spent a lot of time and a lot of resources on this project."

Robbins said another reason they decided on a biomass facility was because of their experience in the field.

"We know how to handle fuel, we know how to purchase fuel and we know how to burn fuel," he said. "We felt it would be a good fit for us."

Robbins also talked about the logistics of getting the boiler, "a key piece of equipment in this facility," delivered to the plant.

Produced in Abilene, Texas, the boiler was too big to fit on a normal tractor-trailer and delivery by rail was the next viable solution.

"It was great getting it from Texas to Searsport," Robbins said. "It took a long time and the train had to stop for different periods of time (including bad weather in Canada). It was easier to go north into Canada, then come across, because of the rail infrastructure."

Once in Searsport, transporting the boiler the final 18 miles over local roads required substantial planning.

"They had to lift over 500 lines to get the boiler underneath because of its height; we had to jump over six bridges and build bridges over the bridges because the boiler was too heavy. It weighed about 240,000 pounds, not counting the trailer it was going on," Robbins said.

The trailer it rode on was "super specialized" and had 10 or 15 axles that could turn independently; it could be raised, lowered, and tilted. "It was quite a hassle," Robbins said. It took two or three days to get it to Searsmont from Mack Point in Searsport.

In questions from the audience, Robbins was asked about the ash produced at the facility. He estimated, at full capacity, about 16 tons — about a tractor-trailer load — would be burned every two hours.

"Most of what we are burning is going to be hardwood tops and limbs and softwood chips," he said. "The ash is similar to what you pull out of your wood stove."

One person wondered about any roadblocks to the process.

"We had trouble with the turbine from day one," Robbins said. "They were three months late on their delivery, and with the project time frame as tight as we were, three months really put us behind."

The building was almost complete but "we were waiting for the boiler and the turbine, both of which were held up, which prevented us from closing up the building," he said. By then, it was quite cold, which made some of the working conditions hard.

Robbins spoke about technical issues with the turbine bearings heating up and expanding, which means everything needs to be monitored, measured and metered to prevent a rise in temperature.

"You don't want one of these things to go bad," he said. "And bad things can happen quickly."

Once the bearing temperature rises above 200 degrees,"we disconnect from the grid; and all of the sudden you've got a boiler that's making 50,000 pounds of steam an hour, and we (have to) blow it out the side of the building," Robbins said.

But, he said, sometimes the issue is outside the company's control.

"The other day we were humming along at 70,000 pounds of steam an hour," Robbins said, "We were generating about 5 megawatts and we were supplying all the steam to the kilns. (Suddenly) someone hit a pole on Route 3, and boom — 70,000 pounds of steam an hour with nowhere to go but outside the building."

One resident asked about the personnel needed to run the biomass plant.

There is one operator, with seven or eight monitors, who makes sure all systems are running the way they should, Robbins said. There is one helper or runner, who physically inspects things, and there is one full-time loader operator to feed fuel to the conveyors, along with a plant manager who supervises production.

Robbins said that by now "we would have had a ribbon cutting" but they are waiting to work out some of the kinks.

In the future, if tripped offline, "we'd like to be able to cover the house load and mill load," he said, to power the entire mill — to be a "power island."