Climate change at home: Rejection of biomass as ‘renewable’ rooted in western Mass. advocacy

  • A diagram depicting the planned location of a biomass plant at the Mackin property in Greenfield. Staff File Photo

  • Lennie Weeks reads a prepared statement announcing the filing of a lawsuit to overturn the Zoning Board of Appeals’ approval of a biomass plant on the Mackin property in Greenfield during a gathering at Energy Park in 2009. STAFF FILE PHOTO

  • Lennie Weeks reads a prepared statement announcing the filing of a lawsuit to overturn the Zoning Board of Appeals’ approval of a biomass plant on the Mackin property in Greenfield during a gathering at Energy Park in 2009. STAFF FILE PHOTO

  • Susan and Lennie Weeks of Tire Warehouse in Greenfield, left, hold a press conference concerning the biomass issue along with Sandy Kosterman of Greenfield and Wendy LaPointe of Gill in 2010. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Lennie Weeks makes a statement with Wendy LaPointe waiting her turn during a press conference held at Tire Warehouse about biomass in 2010. STAFF FILE PHOTO

  • An artist’s concept depicting the proposed biomass plant at the Mackin property in Greenfield. Staff File Photo

  • Environmental activist Karl Meyer during a Greenfield Zoning Board of Appeals meeting in 2009 over a biomass plant proposed in the city. The ZBA granted the plant a permit that eventually was overturned in court. STAFF FILE PHOTO

  • The auditorium including the balcony is filled close to capacity during the Zoning Board of Appeals biomass meeting held at the Greenfield Middle School in 2009. STAFF FILE PHOTO

  • An aerial view of the Mackin property in Greenfield, the proposed site of a biomass plant, in 2009. Staff File Photo/Paul Franz

  • An aerial view of the Mackin property in Greenfield, the proposed site of a biomass plant, in 2009. Staff File Photo/Paul Franz

  • A trailer carrying between 25 and 30 tons of wood chips from a logging job, enough for about one hour of electric generation, is emptied at the Springfield Power biomass plant in Springfield, N.H., Wednesday, August 1, 2018. The facility is one of the 6 independent biomass plants that have been impacted by Sununu’s veto of S. 365 that would have required utilities to purchase a portion of their electricity from the biomass plants. VALLEY NEWS/JAMES M. PATTERSON

Staff Writer
Published: 11/19/2022 7:00:29 AM
Modified: 11/19/2022 7:00:19 AM

Environmental advocates across the state celebrated the removal of wood-burning biomass as “renewable” energy earlier this year — a push that began locally — with the passage of the most recent climate bill.

“What started as a local western Mass. issue became state policy,” said Laura Haight of Partnership for Policy Integrity, a group that worked in concert with lawmakers and environmental groups to achieve the biomass language outlined in the new climate law.

The climate bill, signed into law in August by Gov. Charlie Baker, includes rebates for electric vehicles and charging stations, a fund for green-energy companies and green workforce development for underserved communities, and a change to the law that will make it easier for solar-panel owners to receive compensation for the solar power they generate. However, what’s most significant to some longtime advocates is language that removes wood-burning biomass from the state’s “Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards.”

In other words, the state no longer recognizes biomass as renewable energy, exempting it from energy subsidies.

“When times of change happen, it starts at the local level and works its way up,” said Shelburne Falls resident and environmental activist Janet Sinclair. “If we had not fought these things off in these three towns, it’s unlikely the Legislature would have voluntarily changed the law. … There wouldn’t have been enough of an outcry.”

The local stories — in Russell, Greenfield and Springfield — are what led to all these actions, Sinclair said, referring to biomass plants proposed in each community.

Up until 2019 — following a statewide ballot in 2012 — Massachusetts had “very strong standards” for biomass plants to qualify for renewable portfolio standards, according to Haight. Those 2012 standards were a “grassroots victory,” she said, won by residents and scientists who banded together against proposed biomass plants, including the one in Greenfield.

“Unfortunately, Gov. Baker and his administration were seeking to significantly roll back those standards,” Haight explained.

Although the new regulations would have maintained strong standards for new biomass plants, such as the one proposed in Springfield, she said, it would have allowed existing plants built before a certain year to qualify for renewable energy standards if they claimed to burn mostly non-forest-derived material.

“The fine print expanded that definition of what would qualify and also removed some very critical tracking mechanisms to verify that these plants would be burning what they said they would be burning,” she said.

Sinclair, who was outspoken against the plant proposed in Greenfield, said the planned changes “created an uproar” from those who were part of the grassroots efforts that led to the stronger regulations passed in 2012.

“We worked really hard on that,” she said, acknowledging Meg Sheehan, an environmental lawyer, who wrote the ballot question to take biomass out of the renewable portfolio standard.

In the wake of Baker’s proposed rollbacks in 2019, Haight credited legislators for “stepping up.”

“The public position was quite strong on this and repeated over and over again that we did not want biomass to count as renewable energy,” she said. “We took that message to the Legislature, and the Legislature agreed.”

The concern went beyond forest impacts or climate impacts, she said; it was also about a growing understanding of the health impacts. Echoing Sinclair, Haight attributed the final outcome to the efforts of local activists and scientists speaking out over the last three years. The effort, in part, grew from changes in 2020 won by Springfield groups fighting for stronger regulations on new biomass plants over a plant proposed there.

“What’s important is it didn’t stop there,” Haight said. “Both citizens and the legislative leaders were like, ‘Nobody should have to go through what we went through. … We want to change the law.’ I think it’s important that it wasn’t just a NIMBY — not in my backyard. It shouldn’t be in anybody’s backyard.”

Although more recent efforts center on opposition to the plant proposed in Springfield, which is still tied up in lawsuits, according to Haight, the local fight against biomass plants began more than a decade ago with three proposals for developments in Massachusetts, including the one at Greenfield’s Mackin property near the Interstate 91 Industrial Park.

The plant, which received a special permit from the Greenfield Zoning Board of Appeals in 2009, was met from the start with opposition by residents, who filed an appeal with the board after the permit had been approved. After several years in court, a judge sided with the residents, sending the project back to the Zoning Board of Appeals to revise its plans.

Haight said the new regulations in 2012 effectively put an end to the plans in Greenfield and Russell — an indication, she noted, of how important subsidies are for these types of projects.

By 2015, local efforts resulted in a city ordinance getting passed by City Council that would keep biomass out of Greenfield.

“We’re always hoping these local efforts will translate to something statewide,” Sinclair said. “The tobacco regulations occurred town by town before the state made it illegal to smoke in a public space. That’s a great example of how these big changes can happen at a local level.”

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne.

Climate Change at Home is sponsored by Whalen Insurance.


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