Editorial: Need for biomass balance

Published: 8/8/2017 5:42:57 PM

Many arguments exist for promoting wood as a heating fuel source: It’s a renewable resource that eases our dependence on fossil fuels. It provides Massachusetts loggers and landowners with a steady source of income and reduces American reliance on foreign oil supplies.

But there’s also this inconvenient truth: Massachusetts has more air pollution from wood combustion than any other New England state, according to a Pelham environmental group’s analysis of federal data.

That fact, along with the knowledge that burning wood speeds climate change, should give Massachusetts officials pause as they prepare to add boilers fueled by “woody biomass” — wood chips or pellets — to the list of alternative energy sources eligible for government subsidies.

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 solar, geothermal and other “clean” sources of heat. The Department of Energy Resources is now drafting regulations to implement that law, which would give a financial boost to the wood fuel industry.

The state held the last of its public hearings on the plans earlier this week in Holyoke, drawing protests and praise. Supporters of wood-fueled heat say that when it is combined with sustainable forestry practices, biomass can provide a sound alternative to fossil fuels — and keep heating dollars local.

“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 group representing loggers, foresters and landowners.

A representative of one biomass and solar energy company added Monday that his firm has installed 180 wood pellet and wood chip boilers in New Hampshire and Vermont, many in schools — replacing, he said, a million gallons of oil with a local, predictably priced fuel source.

Some fear that providing additional financial incentives for wood-fired heating sources will lead to deforestation as land is clear-cut to meet rising demand. Biomass supporters counter that smart forestry management practices can prevent such destruction — adding that housing and commercial developments are the real threat to forested landscapes.

We tend to agree that the clear-cutting fears are overblown; Massachusetts residents care enough about preserving forests that they would quickly shut down any efforts to scrape clean large swathes of woodlands to provide fuel.

But other concerns — increasing air pollution and the health problems fine particulates can bring, shifting attention away from truly clean fuel sources, pumping more greenhouse gasses into the air — ring true.

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

As the state moves forward, we hope that it can find a way to strike the balance between supporting a reasonable level of growth in the local wood fuel industry and tipping the scales too far.

Also, we’d like to hear more from all sides about using technological advances to make wood-burning gentler on the environment and human health. That’s an investment that would keep us warm for generations to come.

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