Robbins family aims to bring new biomass plant online next year

By Ben Holbrook | Feb 12, 2017
Source: An undated aerial view of Robbins Lumber in Searsmont.

Searsmont — Plans to construct a biomass plant on the Robbins Lumber Inc. property are moving forward with work already under way on some portions of the project.

The 8.5-megawatt biomass plant, which has a net 7.5-megawatt generating capacity, will burn bark, wood chips and sawdust to power a steam turbine to generate electricity. Waste heat from the plant will be used to dry lumber and heat buildings at the sawmill.

Sited to the south of the company's existing office buildings and saw mill, the new plant will be constructed on an already-developed area on the property. It is not expected to impact access to the property or internal traffic flow.

In addition, the Robbinses state in their site plan review application the most significant noise generating piece of equipment associated with the biomass plant is an induction fan. That fan is located inside a building and the noise it generates will be muffled.

Catherine Robbins-Halsted said construction has already begun on two components of the project — cooling towers and a twin dump station. The two facilities are being built now, Robbins-Halstead said, because they are needed by the sawmill, but the biomass plant will also use the equipment.

She noted that Cianbro will build the biomass plant.

Currently, the family is awaiting permits from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection that they hope to have in hand shortly. On Feb. 7, the Robbinses attended an informational meeting to explain to Searsmont residents what environmental permits they are seeking.

Applications are pending for three permits: a Location of Development permit, an air emissions permit and a wastewater discharge permit. The wastewater permit allows cooling water associated with the biomass plant to be discharged into an on-site wastewater treatment system, Robbins-Halsted said.

The biomass project in Searsmont is one of four approved by Maine Public Utilities Commission to participate in the state's Community-Based Renewable Energy Program. Under the program's terms, the Robbinses have until the end of December 2018 to begin generating power with the biomass plant. However, Robbins-Halsted said the family intends to have the plant running by June 2018.

Whether they achieve that goal will depend largely on how construction progresses, Robbins-Halsted said Feb. 8, adding the weather this winter has so far been cooperative.

When they pitched the project to residents last year, the Robbinses indicated bringing the biomass plant online is a possible solution to a problem created by the closure of several paper mills statewide in recent years. In years past, Robbins Lumber sold its sawmill-generated wood chips to paper mills. However, as those mills gradually shuttered operations, Robbins was left without buyers for the 90 tons of chips its sawmill produces daily.

The biomass plant, once running, will be capable of burning all 90 tons of wood chips, and the company will still need to purchase pulp wood from area loggers to chip and burn. The plant consists of a fuel house, turbine/generator room, water treatment, boiler house and other infrastructure. All of the electricity generated by the plant will go onto the Central Maine Power Co. grid.

Additionally, last year residents not only endorsed a resolution supporting the project; they also approved a 30-year tax increment financing district for the biomass plant. That TIF district will allow the town to shelter the new tax value associated with the project, preventing the town's valuation from increasing, which, in turn, would reduce Searsmont's subsidy for education and revenue sharing.

Robbins-Halsted said the Planning Board could give final approval for the project later this month.

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