Opinion

Strengthening the future of Maine manufacturing

Each year, on the first Friday of October, cities and towns across America celebrate National Manufacturing Day. This is a day where we honor the people and businesses that drive local economies, and I was proud to cosponsor the Senate’s resolution honoring this day.

Maine certainly has a lot to celebrate: from boatbuilding to precision manufacturing to agricultural and food production, our state is filled with manufacturers that play central roles in creating jobs and supporting local communities. Maine is blessed with natural resources aplenty: take for example, our forests, which have provided the foundation for economic prosperity for generations in rural towns across our state.

Maine’s forest products industry continues to play a major role in our state’s economy, with a total economic impact in 2016 estimated at $8.5 billion, supporting over 33,000 total jobs. We cannot, however, ignore the fact that rapid shifts in the market have led to the closure of many pulp and paper mills and biomass power plants, which has led to a 20-25 percent reduction in markets for forest products and a loss of markets for two million tons of low-grade pulp wood and almost two million tons of forest residuals.

These are serious changes that threatened livelihoods and, in some cases, scattered families – but while market changes have tested our storied sector, the market hasn’t changed who we are.

We are a state made of resourceful people who look at these challenges and see new opportunities. And, if we’re going to truly maximize Maine’s rural economy, we cannot let anything go to waste. In other words, we need to use every part from the pig but the squeal. So, since the changes in market demand have resulted in an abundance of low-grade wood waste from sawmills and logging operations, we need to turn that abundance into new ways to sustain our forest economy. By diversifying market opportunities for forest products that strengthen our manufacturing sector and rural communities, we can turn this byproduct into another asset for Maine and fuel more jobs for our state.

One of these opportunities, combined heat and power (CHP) technology, allows businesses to lower energy costs by utilizing low-grade forest waste to convert excess biomass into electricity and thermal steam energy. This technology is one strategy that can help maximize our natural resources, while creating jobs and enabling opportunities for economic growth. For example, we’re now looking at how we can expand technologies like CHP to create microgrids, which would increase markets for forest products and allow for the co-location of innovative manufacturing projects utilizing locally generated electricity and heat energy.

This is exactly the type of forward-thinking approach Maine is known for: by turning a challenge into an asset, manufacturers are able to efficiently use our abundant natural resources, save on energy costs and increase manufacturing productivity in a way that sustains and grows local businesses.

To be sure, when our rural communities (or any community) loses a major employer, it means fewer jobs and more families struggling to make ends meet. No community should have to face those hardships – certainly not alone. That’s why together with Senator Collins, we urged the Commerce Department to establish and lead an integrated, multi-agency Economic Development Assessment Team (EDAT) focused on Maine’s forest-based economy that would leverage the power of multiple federal government agencies and harness industry input to create economic development strategies that would help pave the way for job growth for rural Maine communities in the years to come. We are already seeing positive results from these efforts and we need to do more.

At my request, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources convened a field hearing Friday in Searsmont focused on how our manufacturers are able to efficiently use our abundant natural resources, save on energy costs and increase manufacturing productivity in a way that sustains and grows local businesses. The field hearing took place at Robbins Lumber, a fifth-generation, family-owned sawmill that currently has an innovative CHP facility under construction. By taking our committee to “the field” (as they say), Maine received an opportunity to highlight our ingenuity. We need to be encouraging conversations like this and recognizing the contributions of manufacturers in Maine.

Maine is home to vast forest and natural resources, and a skilled workforce that has harvested, hauled, and processed wood from Maine’s forests for generations. Today, as we honor National Manufacturing Day, we celebrate that history and look for new opportunities that will continue that long tradition into the future.

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