Maine taxpayers’ support of wood-to-energy facilities around the state has been called both a waste and a lifeline to rural forest economies.

With one notable exception, there’s general agreement that Maine lawmakers’ latest support for biomass energy is a subsidy.

A report in April panned that latest government support and past efforts for policymakers to help Maine’s biomass industry, an argument that hinges on one contested point: is biomass good or bad for the environment?

The Portland-based Biomass Power Association commissioned a case study published in May that concluded harvesting tops and limbs of trees emitted less carbon than a standard natural gas-fired generator in the short-term. In the long-term, it was on par.

The study doesn’t contend that biomass is “carbon neutral,” meaning a process that releases no net carbon into the atmosphere.

The association’s president, Bob Cleaves, said the results were “decisive” in an article in Biomass Magazine that focused on the emissions savings when compared with natural gas.

“In one year, the biomass-fueled power plant saved 115 percent of the carbon emissions of natural gas,” he wrote. “Comparing the two fuel sources for 100 years, the carbon savings held steady at 98 percent, after taking into account the fuel needed to cut, chip and transport the fuel to a biomass facility.”

The trade magazine ran Cleaves’ letter with the headline: ” It’s settled: Biomass is a carbon-saving fuel.”

Eric Kingsley, a forestry consultant whose work was cited in the study, on Twitter called it a “very good study” but said that “‘it’s settled’ is optimistic.”

A slightly different debate has taken place nationally, as Congress in a May spending bill directed various departments to create policies that recognize “the carbon neutrality of biomass.”

Advocates for that idea argue for the concept of “carbon recycling,” where they say carbon released from burning trees will get sequestered, eventually, by the trees that grow back in their place. The topic and controversy filled a cover story in Science magazine’s January issue.

The issue runs in the background of policy decisions in Maine, too. For one operator, the idea’s contained right in the name. Stored Solar LLC said in a video directed at investors that “before solar panels and battery storage, the forests were nature’s way to store the Sun’s energy.”

Glen Brand, director of the Sierra Club in Maine, said that’s technically true of oil or coal or natural gas, too. He said his group “strongly contests the idea that it’s carbon neutral.”

Brand said he doesn’t doubt that biomass is cleaner than traditional fossil fuels, but energy efficiency, wind and solar power are better ways to reduce carbon emissions and are becoming cheaper.

But in-state economic benefits are another part of the equation in Maine, where Cleaves said the industry is “an important part of our culture and our economic well-being.”

“I’ve been to Ashland and Fort Fairfield and I see these towns really struggling,” Cleaves said, referring to two Aroostook County towns where ReEnergy runs biomass plants getting taxpayer subsidies to operate. “If places like Pennsylvania and Ohio can promote fracking of natural gas because it’s good for their economy, then why the heck can’t the state of Maine take care of its energy resources in a way that benefits its people?”

Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.