Editor’s note: The following is a column on biomass energy, submitted by Bryan Lehrer, a senior at Bates College in Lewiston. As part of a class he is taking, he has been doing research on biomass energy and spending a lot of time at ReEnergy’s plant in Livermore Falls.

Next time you’re driving south on Route 133 away from downtown Livermore Falls, look to your right and find a large pumping smokestack. Take a second to appreciate it. This is the sight of an energy marvel. Let me explain:

What you are seeing here is the smoke from the Livermore Falls biomass plant owned by ReEnergy Holdings. What is biomass? Biomass is fuel, just like natural gas or oil. In this instance, biomass means wood. A biomass plant burns wood to produce energy. Instead of just heat though, this fire’s goal is electricity. The smoke that you are seeing is the byproduct of this, the final step of the process.

Let’s go back to the beginning though. The whole process starts with something that grows all around us in Maine—deep, healthy forests. This is where biomass comes from. No mining, no drilling, it’s literally in your backyard. Biomass wood is unique in that it mainly comes from the waste of logging and lumber operations that are already happening in Maine forests. Industries that require precise cuts of wood produce large amounts of waste in the form of woodchips. 50 years ago, this waste had no purpose besides either sitting on the forest floor or being sent to landfills. When biomass plants were first constructed in the late 20th century, they found a way to divert this waste towards a practical use. Instead of sending byproduct to landfills, it is burned at the plant. Very few trees are therefore cut down for biomass itself.

The Livermore Falls plant takes further steps to ensure that their wood comes from well-managed forests. Namely, ReEnergy has all of their certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. Besides being good for the health of our forests, SFI certified biomass relates back to another important feature of the fuel—it’s not damaging to our atmosphere.

When a fossil fuel like coal is burned it emits significant amounts of carbon, a well-established greenhouse gas. Biomass or wood, also releases carbon when it is burned, but this carbon is classified differently. Because biomass used in the Livermore Falls plant comes from sustainably managed forests, experts are able to keep a close eye on the growth and harvest rates of trees. For every tree that is cut down, more than one reaches maturity. The carbon that is emitted into the atmosphere after these harvested trees are combusted is thus only recaptured in the growth of new trees that are then harvested once more. The loop here is closed.

This doesn’t mean that the smoke you see coming out of the plant’s smokestack doesn’t contain carbon; it does. The catch is that it’s in a form that is okay for the atmosphere. The carbon from coal? Not so much.

The Livermore plant has other good things going for it. Economically, biomass is extremely beneficial. Every part of the production process stays in the state. Mainer’s harvest the stuff and run the plants, which are in Maine. Compared to oil, which can come from all over the world, with biomass we know exactly where it comes from.

The job production from biomass is especially important in light of the slowly shrinking mill industry. Often times when paper or lumber mills shut down, the employees can find jobs at biomass plants. Biomass certainly hasn’t filled the post-mill jobs hole, but it has played an important part in setting the tone for Maine’s economic revitalization.

If all this sounds a little too good to be true, I completely understand your hesitance. Energy is a controversial subject. There is lots of money at stake and often times we are sold on opinions and not facts. When I first learned about biomass, I too thought that it sounded a little too good to be true. This is why I went to go visit the Livermore plant myself.

What I found was not a marketing lie. There were no men in suits sitting in boardrooms. There were real, honest people with oil-stained flannel shirts and work boots. I had a particularly memorable conversation with the head of the plant, a man named David Ettinger.

Ettinger truly cares about his job and the mission of the plant—to provide local, clean energy and jobs for Mainers. I believed him when he said this because he is one of these people himself. He grew in the immediate area of the plant and has always called this place home.

He wanted to get across a single point: people need to know more about biomass. He told me a story about a time he ran into community member who thought that the plant burned trash because its located next to the Livermore Fall dump. The distress in his voice made it seemed like this was something he ran into often.

People generally don’t need to know or care about biomass in order for it to be burned. Maine residents purchase electricity from CMPC and CMPC purchases biomass electricity from ReEnergy. This will happen without the direct involvement of normal consumers. But that doesn’t mean that Maine residents should ignore biomass. Ettinger is right in that there should be more public awareness surrounding the fuel. Energy plays such a fundamental role in everything that we do. We owe it to ourselves to understand it at least on a basic level.

I urge you to go have a conversation with your friends and family about the energy that you use. Do you know where this energy comes from? Do you know about the biomass plant that operates right in Livermore Falls? Take time to develop personal answers to these questions, even if that means being against biomass. If you feel so compelled, choose to speak with your wallet. CMPC offers ways to purchase only renewable energy, of which biomass is a component, through Maine Green Power (https://megreenpower.com).

Finally, if this is too much to ask, let me at least reiterate my one suggestion from above. The next time you drive by the Livermore Falls biomass plant, don’t shrug off the sight of the pluming smokestack. Instead take a moment to appreciate it. What you’re seeing is something that has direct relevance to your well-being. What you are seeing is an energy marvel.

To find out more about the biomass or author, please visit sites.google.com/a/bates.edu/biomass