ATHENS — A $30 million biomass plant proposed for Athens has won certification from a state financing agency for $12 million in state tax credits, a step forward for a project that could mean saving or creating about 200 jobs to town, boosting the local tax base and providing a boon to local businesses.

Athens Energy, an affiliate of Maine Wood Pellets Co., on Route 150, received certification for Maine New Markets tax credits from directors of the Finance Authority of Maine at the board’s July 17 meeting, according to a FAME news release.

Bill Norbert at FAME said Monday the certification is the first of two steps to be completed for three subsidiaries of CCG Community Partners LLC, expects the credits to help leverage $30.3 million in investment in the biomass plant.

Certifying the biomass project for the New Markets credits means investors are eligible for a credit against their state income tax bills for the value of some investments made in the project.

Investors now will have two years to complete the second step, which is to show the state they have made the actual investments to be eligible for the tax credits, Norbert said.

Speaking for the Athens company Monday, Kris Eimicke, a lawyer with Pierce Atwood in Portland, said he expects the new power plant to be operational in about 15 months.

“This facility that’s being built is going to result in the creation of a number of new jobs and the retention and stabilization of the existing pellet facility,” Eimicke said. “Economic impact reports estimate that about 230 direct and indirect jobs are going to be created or retained as a result of this investment, and that’s not including various additional community impacts, like waiters and waitresses at the local diner and the like — direct and indirect jobs in the supply chain of the business.”

Eimicke said there about 50 employees at the pellet mill, which can be expanded with investments made under the tax credit program.

Eimicke said the plant will burn “low-quality waste wood” that cannot be used in the existing pellet manufacturing plant. He said the material to be burned will be leftovers from forestry operations by Linkletter & Sons Inc., the pellet mill and the new biomass plant.

The material to be burned at the new plant will be limited, as the result of an ordinance adopted by the town of Athens several years ago.

The ordinance bans the burning of construction and demolition debris in a biomass plant. Eimicke said as far as he knows, the company has no intention of burning construction and demolition debris.

“It’s sort of waste wood — not waste in the sense of garbage, but waste in the sense of clippings, trimmings and things like that,” Eimicke said.

The Athens ordinance was approved by voters in 2007. The vote came as a result of a proposal by the Linkletter interests in 2005 to allow Massachusetts-based GenPower to build a biomass facility at the former Boralex plant, which closed in 2002 on Route 150,.

Members of a group called Citizens Against Pollution In Town spent more than two years crafting the ordinance, which placed a permanent ban on the burning of construction and demolition debris. Members hoped at the time to prevent any other biomass company from setting up shop in town, according to a news report from 2007.

The Athens ordinance does not prohibit burning wood in wood stoves, nor does it affect the operations of the Athens pellet plant. As described in the ordinance, wood waste includes brush, stumps, untreated lumber, bark, wood chips and other wood not mixed with other solid or liquid waste.

Debris such as railroad ties, telephone poles and general refuse from a demolished home is banned.

Linkletter & Son eventually allowed its lease offer to GenPower to expire and subsequently announced plans to build a pellet mill.

“The company expressed their real excitement about the project,” Eimicke said by phone Monday. “They believe it’s going to be transformational to the community, really ramping up production of the existing pellet facility, creating lots of new jobs and securing a lot of the jobs in the forest, cutting down this wood. With the current state of the paper industry, having new sources of use — waste biomass that wouldn’t be used by the paper companies — is very important to the state of Maine, and to Somerset County especially.”

The certification allows the Athens company to use the promise of tax credits to help attract financing for the project, according to a release from FAME.

FAME is not putting any money at risk, Norbert said. Funding for the facility will be coming from U.S. BanCorp and Farm Credit.

The investments will be in the form of loans to Athens Energy to be used to build and equip a biomass electricity generator and the payment of transaction costs. The investments also will help to expand the associated wood pellet production facility, according to a news release.

“The state New Markets Capital Investment Program is modeled after a federal program and is designed to bring investment into some of the rural, high-unemployment areas of the state,” Norbert said. “This is the first step of the two-step dance. In return for the $30 million in investments (CCG Community Partners LLC) would then be eligible for $12 million in tax credits. They would have to prove they made the investments to get the actual tax credits. It’s a way of reimbursing their investments.”

The state program is administered by FAME in cooperation with Maine Revenue Services and the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development.

“It should help the local tax base by attracting jobs and investment there, making the plant expand. It’s a plus, really, to attract investment into these rural areas,” Norbert said. “The Legislature has improved this program because, obviously, they consider it worthwhile.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter: @Doug_Harlow

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