ColumnistMarty Nathan: Biomass a ‘misbegotten’ climate change trend

Published: 3/31/2021 3:21:04 PM

Think globally, act locally. Fairly reliable advice, particularly for tackling massive issues like climate change and social injustice.

It’s a useful approach for the growing number of us who support making a just transition to an economy that no longer is based on burning fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gases.

It is a particularly appropriate lens through which to view the intensifying effort to prevent Palmer “Renewable” Energy from constructing a 42-megawatt biomass electric-generating plant in East Springfield. Its smokestacks must be 200 feet high because of the amount of pollution it will produce, nearly 200 tons per year of a toxic stew that provokes asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, vascular disease, cancer and an increased susceptibility to COVID-19 infection.

Studies have shown that biomass burning produces more particular matter — the damaging pollutant that buries itself deep in the lungs per unit electricity generated — than does coal. And those high smokestacks are not enough to protect the low-income, racially-diverse community in which the plant is being sited, or the city of Springfield itself, from the smoke and fumes.

Pushing the biomass incinerator plan is an audacious move by Palmer and the politicians backing it. The plant has been vigorously and, so far, successfully fought for 12 years by city residents who know that it will only bring more illness to their community in which one in five children and adults already suffer from asthma. The high asthma prevalence is due to Springfield’s long-term poor air quality, as well as limited access to adequate health care. The combination earned Springfield the title of “Asthma Capital of the Nation.”

The pollution doesn’t stay put, but travels across municipal borders so, yes, people in Northampton and those as far away as Hartford, Brattleboro and even Boston could be affected and should be concerned. But the fiercest resistance to the incinerator has always come from Springfield. Two years ago, opponents believed Palmer had given up the fight because the venture did not seem profitable.

You see, burning woody biomass is a very expensive way to produce electricity, and it cannot compete on the energy market unless either it is provided subsidies or the market itself is artificially distorted. Last year the state of Massachusetts offered both forms of resuscitation and revived the zombie plant.

First, the 2020 House Climate Bill tried to rig the market by claiming that biomass burning was “non-carbon-emitting” (false!) and making it an option for municipal light plants that were facing new rules forcing them to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But outraged citizens across the state, led by the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition and the Springfield City Council, raised Cain to their legislators, and a five-year moratorium was put on the “non-carbon-emitting” scheme in the bill. The improved bill was signed into law last week.

Whew! But in December the governor announced amendments to the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard that would designate electricity produced from inefficient biomass burning as “renewable.” This new scheme would make the Palmer plant eligible for more than $13 million in subsidies taken from our electricity bills. Yes, yours and mine. And our money would make the Palmer plant nicely profitable and thus viable.

Let’s get one thing straight: the inefficient burning of woody biomass for electricity is not an answer to the threat of climate change. The carbon dioxide sequestered in trees is released immediately into the atmosphere when burned, in amounts greater per electrical unit produced than from burning coal, the most harmful fossil fuel. Yes, you can plant trees to recapture that carbon, but that process is not effective for decades for wood wastes, to over a century for whole trees, according to the study authorized by our state nine years ago.

The findings of that study forced the state to remove inefficient biomass from the Renewable Portfolio Standard. Scientists knew we don’t have a century, or even decades, to lower our emissions to prevent the worst effects of global warming.

The recent attempts by politicians to reinstate biomass as a clean and green energy option are a shameless attempt at greenwashing.

This is our local challenge and you can act by calling Gov. Baker at 888-870-7770 and Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources Commissioner Patrick Woodcock at 617-626-7332 to tell them that you are opposed to making biomass subject to renewable energy subsidies and opposed to the Palmer plant. It is a false climate solution and is harmful to people in Springfield and the surrounding area. For more information, go to notoxicbiomass.org/.

What about thinking globally? The Springfield fight is a regional piece of a global misbegotten trend to log and burn wood in the name of fighting climate change. North Carolina forests are being clear-cut for Europe’s furnaces. Last year, U.S. Rep. Richie Neal extended renewable energy tax credits for biomass power plants in the federal budget.

We will lose the climate battle and destroy our air and our forests unless we inculcate real science into our decision-making.

On the other hand, if we win in Springfield, we send a message that speaks way beyond our borders.

Marty Nathan is a retired physician, mother and grandmother who writes a monthly column on climate change.


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