Fort Drum’s biomass plant could be saved under state budget

Published: Apr. 5, 2023 at 5:11 PM EDT
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FORT DRUM, New York (WWNY) - There’s a last-minute effort in Albany to save Fort Drum’s biomass plant. There’s very specific language in the state budget that could keep it open.

Biomass stopped being considered a renewable energy source by the state. That’s why ReEnergy is winding down operations at its $50 million, 60-megawatt facility on Fort Drum.

Before officially closing at the end of March, the plant provided 100 percent of power on the post.

Now, there’s new legislation, part of state budget discussions, to keep the plant afloat.

The legislation states, “Renewable energy systems means systems that generate electricity or thermal energy through use of forest biopower that is operational as of December 31st, 2022.”

The language is specific to Fort Drum.

“This bill is just saying, ‘We’ll consider this facility at this location to be a renewable energy system,’” said Empire State Forest Products Association Executive Director John Bartow.

However, Bartow says that alone won’t save the plant. The Public Service Commission would then need to act and extend its renewable energy credit, which expired on March 31, to keep running.

“It doesn’t guarantee that the Public Service Commission is going to then turn around and issue that Tier 2 maintenance credit,” he said.

As the plant winds down its operation, 28 full-time workers will be let go. And there’s a ripple effect. ReEnergy says it supports 300 direct and indirect jobs and spends $25 million annually as it buys wood chips and scraps.

“There’s over 250 loggers and haulers that are involved in that. It’s a huge outlet for low-grade materials being extracted from our forests. There are a lot of loggers and haulers here that are impacted here, some of which will go out of business,” said Bartow.

Before ReEnergy came to Fort Drum, local paper mills like ones in Carthage and Deferiet, took those low-grade materials. The mills are long gone and it left a void.

“Probably even a larger amount than ReEnergy’s doing now. But ReEnergy, when it came in 10 years ago, kind of picked up a big chunk of that market,” said Bartow.

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has been lobbying state officials to let the biomass plant stay open, arguing having Fort Drum be energy independent is a national security issue.

Laura Haight, U.S. policy director with the Partnership for Policy and Integrity, doesn’t buy it.

“If this were a real national security issue, you would think that the Army would be paying the extra cost of maintaining that plant, not trying to push it over to New York state to fund it without renewable energy dollars,” she said.

ReEnergy says there’s a very small window in the days ahead to stop the plant’s shutdown. But this all comes down to an agreement on the state budget and those two timelines may not match up.