OLD TOWN, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- For more than a decade, the paper industry in Maine has faced lower profits, mills closing, ownership changes, and thousands of jobs lost. The pulp and paper industry has been trying to redefine itself. In Old Town, they are hoping to be on the cusp of a breakthrough for a new process to extract sugars from wood waste that can be used to make biofuels and bioplastics.
Darrell Waite is the biorefinery Process Manager at Old Town Fuel and Fiber. "The technology we're developing here at Old Town Fuel and Fiber is really an industry changer," he said.
That technology would take the wood waste generated from the mill and break it down in stages until it becomes a black liquid known as woody biomass cellulosic sugar. For the past few years, Waite has been working on this pilot project to prove that the mill could house a biorefinery that would be economically viable.
"I think it does represent hope because initially when we developed this technology even we ourselves we're not sure," said Waite.
Now they're ready to move forward but some skeptics argue that biofuels are not the answer to our energy needs. The Energy Justice Network is a national group that supports grassroots activists fighting what it calls dirty energy and waste facilities. It supports wind and solar but is opposed to the use of fossil fuels and is critical of biofuels including those made from wood waste
"One of the concerns is the amount of logging that would have to take place to do this process they would have to increase logging," explained Mike Ewall, the co-director of Energy Justice Network. He says there's not enough wood waste to create enough biofuels to replace petroleum, citing a Department of Energy report showing that the Old Town Plant would only create about half a million gallons of fuel per year.
"You still have forest to fuel issues," he said. "We need our forests to be the lungs of the earth to keep global warming from being a problem and we can't keep mowing down humongous amounts of forest to make a small amount of oil replacement because we just don't have enough forest to do that."
The Federal Government supports the development of this technology, and the US Deptartment of Energy has invested $30 million dollars in grant money to Old Town Fuel and Fiber to develop it. In Maine, the Governors Energy Office is supportive too.
"It is a huge opportunity but the challenges of getting there are significant. If you make these hurdles you could really transform the energy markets," explained Patrick Woodcock, the director of the Governor's Energy Office.
Woodcock says he recognizes the potential, and he's not worried about the deforestation fears of groups like Energy Justice Network because he feels Maine has a good record of sustainable harvesting of its forest lands. He does want to temper expectations of those who think this technology will solve the problems of eroding jobs at the paper mills.
"But we have to be realistic. The technology is hard. The cost, the barriers of breaking down woody waste and putting it into liquid fuel is challenging," explaind Woodcock. "But it is worth continuing to put federal resources into researching putting what is so plentiful into what is so scarce."
Old Town Fuel and Fiber is hoping to get the green light from the US Department of Energy to start work on creating a full scale bio-refinery in 2014. The mill says it currently has about a dozen customers that it has been manufacturing cellulosic sugars for as part of this pilot project.