New use for Maine's pulpwood would lock carbon in building walls, bring green jobs to defunct mill

Really cool article about new insulation that could reduce our carbon footprints and revive a dying industry.

Maine's woodlands are a foundational element of the state's plans to drive down emissions of planet-warming carbon dioxide. It's a vast and growing forest, and each year its capacity to absorb CO2 increases.

Conservationists say that carbon sink must be preserved and expanded to meet the state's climate goals. And innovations at an old paper mill in Somerset County might show one way the timber industry can assist in the effort.

Starting in the 19th century and lasting into the 21st, paper mills around Maine took in tons of low-quality pulpwood every day, churning out cellulose, newsprint and other stock for the country's vibrant periodicals industry.

But with rise of digital content and global trade, and the explosion of a pulp digester in Jay two years ago, Maine's pulpwood markets collapsed. Many mills are quiet now.

"We're sitting here where they used to make the New York Times," Matthew O'Malia, the co-founder of a company called GO Lab Madison, says with a laugh. "Not making the New York Times here any more."

O'Malia sits in a brick-lined meeting room in the old Madison Mill, looking out over a hydroelectric dam that spans the Kennebec River.

GO Lab is retrofitting the facility to process low-quality byproducts of the state's lumber industry — softwood sawmill chips and timber-harvest detritus that right now are hard to sell. They'll turn it into wood-fiber insulation, called Timber HP. Some 230 million tons worth a year.

"At the end of the tree's life or when it's harvested if it were to stay in the forest it would die and release the carbon into the atmosphere," O'Malia says. "We're going to take that carbon and lock it into the building."

Similar technology has been used in Europe for decades. But insulation, being mostly air, isn't economically viable for import to the U.S. So pioneering wood-fiber insulation here is exciting environmentalists and investors, with the majority of the $100 million project financed by municipally backed "green" bonds.

O'Malia is a little shy about recounting the "aha" moment that helped him and partner Joshua Henry find their way into the insulation business.

"Yeah yeah yeah, it's not my favorite story," he says.

O'Malia is an architect, and a leader in Maine's emerging "passivhaus" movement, which aims to design housing and commercial buildings that require very low energy inputs to keep them warm or cool, thereby reducing CO2 emissions.

One day he and Henry, a chemist by training, were contemplating foam insulation that covered the shell of a partially finished passivhaus school building in Belfast.

"And he's like, 'Oh great, I see what you're doing, you're building a cheap beer cooler.' And I'm like, 'OK, that hurt,'" O'Malia says. "Basically it's derived directly from fossil fuels. And this is the problem: We're trading one environmental disaster, which is operational energy for buildings, for another, which is the materials we're using to build them, to try solve the first problem. We didn't solve any problem."

Read the full article at Maine Public Radio.

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