Md. hoping to construct wood energy plant facilities
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The Maryland Department of Natural Resources is paying for an energy specialist to help evaluate buildings and institutions across the state with the hope of swaying them to ditch fossil fuels in favor of wood.
The USDA awarded a $250,000 grant to the department earlier this month to pay for a wood energy specialist who could be hired this summer, said Dan Rider, stewardship manager at the state forest service. The specialist, along with experts including the state and federal forest service, will examine up to 5,000 large buildings across the state that could feasibly benefit from switching to wood energy, he said. Buildings and institutions that consume large amounts of energy every day for heating or air conditioning would be ideal.
“The list gets narrowed down very quickly,” he said. “Wood is not a good fit for every facility. Where wood works it works exceptionally well, but it just doesn’t work for most facilities.”
The department is giving most of the money to the Maryland Clean Energy Center, a quasi-state organization that promotes clean-energy projects, services and technologies. The center will hire the wood-energy specialist who will also “help people understand why wood is a good choice for heating a large building like a hospital or a factory or a university campus,” Rider said.
The state and federal forest services plan to provide design assistance to five to 10 facilities in the state that are ideally situated to switch to woody biomass — buildings or institutions that need to replace an aging boiler, for instance. The state won’t pay for the conversions, so they’re hoping to convince at least one of those sites to make the change, even if the initial conversion costs are higher, Rider said.
“Where the owner gets the advantage is from the operating costs,” he said. “It’s so much cheaper to run the facility using wood. The fuel is so much cheaper. … But it really only works at larger scale.”
If the state convinces someone to convert, it might recover what was lost when the state announced in 2019 its planned removal of a three-decade-old wood-burning power plant at Eastern Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison in Somerset County.
The forest-products industry, which has struggled with several mill closures in recent years, decried the change, saying the prison consumed 50,000 tons of wood chips each year, about a third of the Eastern Shore’s wood chip production. The state is nearing the end of a process to connect the prison to a natural-gas pipeline, but it continues to accept wood chips from Shore loggers and foresters, Rider said. But state officials would be thrilled if multiple conversion projects get off the ground, potentially expanding the market for foresters and loggers statewide.
“That would be a great day,” he said. “Then it’ll be up to the strength of the project itself to move forward.”
The grant announcement is part of a larger push by the state to grow the forest-products industry, the department said in a statement. The forest service is planning to issue a report to help guide the state’s approach. The hope is to develop a wood market that also contributes to the health of the state’s forests and produces clean, renewable energy. The Department of Commerce dedicated a staff member to the initiative as well.
“The Maryland Department of Commerce is committed to the development of the state’s wood energy industry and this grant will go a long way to bring new projects to fruition,” Commerce Secretary Kelly M. Schulz said in a statement.
The state’s effort to boost forest-products production follows years, if not decades, of industry decline in the region. Foresters and loggers struggled with the 2019 closure of a massive Verso paper plant in Allegany County, Md.
The plant was one of the region’s largest buyers of pulpwood, and its shuttering hurt an unknown number of loggers and forestry projects across the region. Dorchester Lumber Co., a pine sawmill in Linkwood, also closed that year.
Industry advocates, including the Maryland Forests Association, stepped up lobbying in response. Last month, the association celebrated the grand opening of Delmarva Lumber in Wicomico County. The pine sawmill was formerly known as Cropper Brothers Lumber Co. and had been in receivership with a local bank since it closed in 2017.
Hopefully, the state can add to the good news, Rider said.
“We see this as an investment in forest health,” he said.