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Battle over biomass subsidies at state energy resources hearing

  • Local environmentalist and doctor Marty Nathan gives public comment on state plans to designate the burning of fuel derived from trees as eligible for clean energy subsidies at Holyoke Community College on August 7, 2017. —DUSTY CHRISTENSEN



@dustyc123
Tuesday, August 08, 2017

HOLYOKE — It’s a local, plentiful energy source, but environmentalists argue that biomass — wood chips or pellets — can’t be considered clean energy and shouldn’t be subsidized by the state as such.

More than 70 people gathered at Holyoke Community College on Monday for the state’s last public hearing on plans to designate the burning of fuel derived from trees as eligible for clean-energy subsidies.

The proposal would provide subsidies for “woody biomass” — in other words, the burning of wood chips or pellets in wood boilers. As part of a 2014 law backed by the logging industry, the state has included biomass boilers in its “Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard,” along with geothermal, solar thermal and other technologies. The Department of Energy Resources is now drafting regulations to implement that law.

State officials have said the inclusion of biomass is intended to provide an energy alternative to fossil fuels in an effort to reduce carbon emissions. Proponents of the rules say that when combined with sustainable forestry practices, biomass can be a renewable energy source that can compete with fossil fuels.

Environmentalists, however, cite research that shows biomass can produce more greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels. They have also raised concerns over the pollution created when burning biomass, and say the state’s proposed financial incentives may lead to the clear-cutting of forests.

“The commonwealth should not be allocating public funds for wood-burning, which benefits a few in the forest industry,” Janet Sinclair, of the group Concerned Citizens of Franklin County, said in a statement.

Sinclair was one of dozens of protesters who showed up to the hearing carrying signs with slogans like, “Biomass? No thanks!” as well as a large, mock asthma inhaler. Hers was one of more than a dozen groups to submit critical comments on the draft regulations, along with the American Lung Association and the Greater Boston Physicians for Responsibility, as well as local and national environmental organizations.

“It’s simply not clean energy — the health impacts are already clear and continue to mount,” Susan Masino, a neuroscientist at Trinity College, said in her testimony.

Those health hazards arise predominantly from the “fine particulate emissions” that result from wood burning. Massachusetts has more air pollution from wood burning than any other state in New England, according to the Partnership for Policy Integrity, a Pelham clean-energy advocacy group which earlier this month released a study of that pollution using data from the Environmental Protection Agency.

“It’s now been confirmed that the small particulates go directly into the brain, and particulate pollution of the size created by wood burning has been linked to poor cognitive function, the acceleration of brain aging and Alzheimer’s disease, and this is just the tip of the iceberg,” Masino said.

Those particulates can also affect the heart and lungs, leading to serious health effects and triggering asthma attacks, according to the EPA.

Opponents of biomass fuel asserted at the hearing that burning wood wouldn’t help to reduce the state’s greenhouse emissions. A state-commissioned 2010 study by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences found that biomass “generally emits more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels per unit of energy produced,” although the impact on Massachusetts’ carbon footprint depends on a host of factors like forest management and pollution controls. Biomass supporters have criticized the report’s emissions calculations as flawed.

Several citizens and environmentalists who stood to speak also contended that providing incentives for wood burning could lead to deforestation.

Markets needed

The public comments were far from dominated by environmentalists, however. Many — tree-farming landowners, foresters and the biomass heating industry among others — expressed support for the new regulations.

“Many landowners — me among them — need to be able to produce periodic income from their woods in order to afford continued ownership of the land,” said Charles Thompson, president of the Massachusetts Forest Alliance, a trade association representing the logging industry, foresters and property owners.

“To do that, there need to be markets for the great variety of species and grades of wood that come from our natural, mixed-species, self-regenerating forests.”

Several proponents of the state’s proposed rules made similar arguments on Monday, advocating for help keeping a market alive for low-value wood or for forest waste.

Joe Radwich, who farms trees on his land in the Berkshires, said biomass won’t lead to deforestation. Encroachment from developments, he said, is the real concern. Proponents of biomass fuel have argued that income from forests will keep landowners from selling to those developers.

Others argued that biomass is a cheap, local source of energy that can be renewable if forests are well maintained. Trees and plants trap carbon dioxide when they grow, and some advocates said more trees are currently being grown than cut in the state.

Jim Van Valkenburgh, a vice president at the biomass heating and solar energy company Froling Energy, said his business has installed 180 wood-pellet and dry wood-chip boilers in New Hampshire and Vermont, many in schools. Those boilers, he said, have replaced the burning of a million gallons of oil with a fuel source that is local and has a stable price.

Wrong direction

But for environmentalists in the room, allowing biomass to be eligible for clean-energy subsidies is a step in the wrong direction as climate disaster looms large. They said the state should focus its financial incentives on proven green energy sources like wind, solar and geothermal energies.

Reducing carbon emissions is no small matter for the administration of Gov. Charlie Baker, who was the first Republican governor to join the U.S. Climate Alliance. The coalition is committed to upholding the 2015 Paris climate accord after President Donald Trump announced he would withdraw the United States from the landmark deal.

What’s more, as part of the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act, Massachusetts is required to lower greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Some have expressed skepticism that the administration will be able to meet those requirements, despite the state’s highest court ruling last year that the state must enact policies that meet them.

“The Baker-Polito administration remains committed to diversifying the commonwealth’s energy portfolio through a balanced approach, and looks forward to working through the regulatory process to ensure that the commonwealth both meets the demands of our ratepayers and reduces carbon emissions,” said Kevin O’Shea, a Department of Energy Resources spokesman.

The department’s guidelines measuring expected emissions assume that biomass harvest will be done using sustainable forestry management, but several opponents questioned the department’s ability or willingness to enforce those standards. And even if regulations require that sustainable land stewardship, it would likely not apply to out-of-state producers.

Patrick Devlin was a town councilor in Greenfield when environmental worries and local pressure ultimately defeated a biomass facility there.

“We cannot take a step backwards now and allow burning to harm our citizenry,” he said Monday to applause. “I do not understand why you consider burning in any form to be safe, except perhaps because you are being strongly pressured by companies who would profit from it.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.