Time running out for Maine to cash in on ‘biobased’ products, advocates say
Leaders at a forum Friday urged the state to get more proactive about creating sustainable products from its rich resources, including 17 million acres of trees.
As Maine’s forest products industry continues to falter, global demand is skyrocketing for new products created from breaking down wood and other plant matter into their constituent sugars and fibers.
Maine should be fighting hard to secure its place in the plant-based, or “biobased,” products industry, but fear, complacency and a lack of political will are holding back any meaningful progress, advocates say. Time is of the essence, because Maine’s existing forest-products infrastructure helps bolster the business case for bringing new biobased products companies and investment to the state. That infrastructure, including pulp and paper mills, is shrinking fast.
First, they made the case for attracting further investment in such products, which include biofuels, building materials, plastics, foam insulation, specialty chemicals and many others.
Charlotte Mace, the executive director of Biobased Maine, said the biobased products industry creates good manufacturing jobs, responds to a sharply rising global demand, relies on sustainable harvests, and reduces the world’s dependence on petroleum and its climate-altering effects.
“I defy you to find another market strategy that does those four things,” she said.
Mace said a 2015 U.S. Department of Agriculture study estimated that biobased products are a $1 trillion-a-year industry.
Sen. Angus King of Maine said that biobased products represent an opportunity for the state to successfully emerge from the “economic hurricane” that has ravaged pulp-and-paper mill communities over the past few years.
“It needs to happen fast. We don’t have 20 to 25 years to sort of figure this out,” King, an independent, said in a recorded statement.
One purpose of Friday’s forum was to demonstrate that companies making biobased products can and do succeed in Maine. Host company Maine Standard Biofuels was founded in 2006 and has doubled its production capacity every year since then, said Alex Pine, the company’s outreach and technology coordinator. The company produces vehicle fuel used by the fleets of Oakhurst Dairy, Barber Foods, Sea Dog Brewing Co. and others. It also makes plant-based soap and is experimenting with bioplastics, Pine said.
“A lot of people say, ‘You can’t do biobased products. There’s still a lot of research that needs to be done,'” he said. “No – we’re here.”
There have been some previous, failed efforts in Maine to gain a foothold in the biofuels industry.
The former Old Town mill had initiated a pilot program in 2008 to produce “biobutanol,” supported by a $30 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. The project was a collaboration with the University of Maine, which has done extensive research on how to distill fuels from wood. Butanol can be used in place of gasoline without any engine modifications.
While pulp remained the mill’s core business, it was one of the only facilities in Maine experimenting with the production of biofuel on a commercial scale. That experiment failed, and the mill shut down in 2014.
Still, forum speaker Fred Moesler said the technology to produce competitively priced biofuels has come a long way in recent years. His company, Pennsylvania-based Renmatix Inc., has developed a relatively inexpensive process for extracting the sugars from wood pulp to produce biofuels and dozens of other products. The process involves blasting the pulp with water under extreme heat and pressure.
Renmatix is part of what Moesler, the company’s chief technology officer, described as the second generation of biofuel makers. The first generation focuses on food-based sugars, such as using corn to get ethanol, but Moesler said the real money is in cellulose-based sugars such as the ones locked away inside of wood.
“You could make a serious, serious dent in petroleum use in the United States with that kind of sugar,” he said.
Moesler said that with Maine’s abundant forests, there is no reason why the state couldn’t become a major player in cellulosic biofuel production. The state has 17 million acres of forest.
“When I drove up here today, I saw lots of fuel,” he said.
Another speaker at Friday’s forum was former Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker, who is now an executive at Renmatix. Schweiker said proponents of the biobased products industry in Maine need to do more outreach, starting with the people and businesses that stand to benefit the most. Those stakeholders include members of the conventional forest products industry. They need to be brought up to speed about the benefits of branching out into biobased products, he said.
“You’ve got what it takes here,” Schweiker said. “I (see) a lot of renewable chemicals. I (see) a lot of rural jobs.”
BIOMASS NOT TO BE FEARED
Frank Nicastro, president of the Lincoln Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce, said some leaders in Maine’s forest products industry have reacted negatively to suggestions that they should embrace biobased products.
“They are not educated in biomass. They are afraid of biomass,” Nicastro told the group. “You start talking about biomass, and they start freaking out.”
Even elected officials in Maine don’t seem to get it, he said. “Our senators, our governor, they don’t really know what it means.”
Other speakers at the forum lamented the lack of participation by Maine officials at national and international conferences devoted to biobased products. Representatives of the state should be present at such events to market Maine’s potential, they said.
Geoffrey Lamdin, founder and director of Brunswick-based Sea Change Group LLC, said there seems to be an attitude among Mainers that the onus should be on industry players to come to them.
“We have a laissez-faire attitude in Maine,” Lamdin said. “I’m sorry, but it’s true.”
Carla Dickstein, senior vice president of research and policy development for Coastal Enterprises Inc., agreed that Maine should be more proactive.
“We need to be aggressive on (reaching out to) markets,” she said. “They’re not local – they’re global – and we need to go to them.”
Mace said Biobased Maine has developed a “road map” to attract outside investment and is awaiting approval of a $500,000 federal grant to implement it.
“We need to be marketing what the state has,” she said. “We can continue making pulp and paper, but also the value-added products.”
Schweiker emphasized the general need to promote “economic literacy about the rewards of this industry sector.”
“This is at hand, now, commercially, with plenty of high profit,” he said. “This is not pie in the sky.”