Climate Change at Home: A place for burning wood in state’s green energy future?


Staff Writer

Published: 03-20-2023 6:34 PM

CHESTERFIELD — In a world of rapidly rising energy costs and quests for sustainable energy, one of the oldest forms of heating may provide an alternative, although its use is not without controversy.

Proponents of modern wood heating systems, fueled by either wood pellets or dried wood chips depending on the size and operation of the heating system, claim they can provide a non-fossil-fuel source of energy and, once properly installed, yield a marked reduction in heating costs.

At Flat Rock Farms in Chesterfield, which sells products including maple syrup and highland cattle beef, Jonathan Parrott uses a wood chip heating system that provides heat to his property. Parrott, who holds a doctoral degree in forest land management from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has long been an advocate of wood heating, having installed his current heating system, made by German company Heizomat, on his farm four years ago.

The farm’s last heating system was more traditional and relied on cordwood, the standard cuts of wood most people use in their fireplaces.

“We have solar hot water, we have solar electric, we have modern wood heating and we produce food,” Parrott said of his farm. “We’re pretty close to being carbon neutral as a property.”

Parrott said he currently pays $1,500 a year in heating costs on the farm; with a gas or electric heating system, he estimates he’d be forking over three to four times that amount.

“Heating with wood is much less money, but it’s much more involved,” Parrott said.

Advocates tout system

Wood heating systems can be expensive to install, with residential project costs averaging about $25,000, depending on the site and project type, according to the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (CEC), a state-funded economic development agency working to bolster the state’s clean energy sector.

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The center touts automated wood heating systems, which work like a gas/oil boiler or furnace except that they burn wood instead of fossil fuels. Automated wood heating systems can use the existing pipe or ducts in a home and require minimal homeowner interaction besides emptying a small ash bin a few times a year, the CEC states in its promotional materials.

Advocates for wood heating say people who install these systems not only save significant money in the long run but also take advantage of the environmental benefits. Modern wood and pellet stoves, boilers and furnaces are engineered to comply with Environmental Protection Agency standards.

“There has been a cost advantage, and it’s only gotten bigger,” said Chris Egan, executive director of the Massachusetts Forest Alliance. “It’s pretty inexpensive to install a new oil or gas boiler, but you’re reducing your carbon impact and you’re saving money with a wood system.”

Installers of the new wood heating systems can also qualify for federal tax credits, heating loans and credits from the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, which can help relieve some of the costs involved, according to the Clean Energy Center.

Not all sold on wood

But using wood as an energy source has its share of critics as well.

A debate has long raged over whether wood heating, also referred to as biomass, is truly an environmentally friendly source of energy, with Massachusetts state policy serving as one of its prominent battlegrounds.

The Department of Energy Resources has two types of standards when considering credits for energy sources. There is the renewable portfolio standard, which contains energy considered to be entirely renewable, such as solar, wind and geothermal energy. Then there is the alternative portfolio standard, which provides credits for energy sources not considered to be entirely renewable, but which contribute overall to the state’s clean energy goals and move away from fossil fuels.

Currently, wood heating falls only in the latter category. Under the previous administration of Gov. Charlie Baker, the department relaxed standards for wood heating systems in the alternative portfolio standard, and included biomass in the renewable portfolio standard.

That, combined the prospect of subsidies for a proposed wood-fueled power plant in Springfield, led to protests from environmental groups, believing emissions from the plant would result in high emissions of P2.5 particles — soot particles named after their size of two and half microns (a micron is 1/25000th of an inch). These particles are able to enter into people’s respiratory tracts and lungs, which can cause damage and worsen medical conditions such as asthma and heart disease.

“We just really need to change the policy, because we should not be incentivizing more pollution,” said Laura Haight, the U.S. policy director of Partnership for Policy Integrity (PFPI), a nongovernmental organization based in Massachusetts. “This idea of modern wood heating being a big improvement, we just don’t concur with that.”

PFPI was founded by Mary Boothe of Pelham, in response to biomass plants in western Massachusetts, and currently advocates for ending subsidies for wood heating in both the United States and in the European Union. In 2021, Haight testified before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture, citing EPA data that stated although wood supplies heat to only 2% of Massachusetts homes, it makes up 22% of all P2.5 emissions in the state.

“Numerous studies have linked wood smoke exposure to a wide range of acute and chronic health problems, including asthma, heart disease, cancer, birth defects, and, most recently, increased risk of mortality from COVID-19,” Haight testified at the time.

The efforts of PFPI proved successful, with legislation passed to remove wood biomass from the state’s renewable portfolio standards and revoke the permit of the Springfield plant.

A bill in the current legislative session introduced by state Sen. Adam Gomez and state Rep. Orlando Ramos, both of Springfield, seeks to eliminate wood biomass’ eligibility for alternative portfolio standard credits. Gov. Maura Healey has also expressed her support for limiting wood subsidies.

Haight said she is not opposed to people having wood heating systems if they choose, and that the bill would grandfather in those already receiving credits, but that she was simply opposed to the state providing subsidies for wood heating.

“We’re not trying to take anything away from anybody,” Haight said. “We just want to correct the policy that is sending our money in the wrong direction.”

Parrott said concerns regarding P2.5 emissions from wood should take into consideration that P2.5 is only a measurement of the particle’s size, not necessarily how toxic they are, saying the state should continue to include wood in the alternative portfolio standard.

“If wood wasn’t included in that, people will still burn wood,” he said. “They’ll just do so less responsibly, so this incentive provides a financial mechanism to help people afford the fancier, more responsible technologies.”

Hospital, others use wood heating systems

There are thousands of pellet stoves and other traditional wood heating systems in Massachusetts, though older systems have more emissions and are unable to meet all of a home’s heating needs.

According to data from the Massachusetts Forest Alliance, there are currently 224 modern wood heating systems across Massachusetts.

Of those systems, 159 were in residential homes, 27 were for commercial buildings, 17 were at schools and 12 were at farms. There are also 13 state-run facilities belonging to the Department of Conservation and Recreation that are powered by wood heating systems.

Many of the most populated areas for modern wood heating can be found in Hampshire and Franklin counties — Greenfield has 10 of them, Amherst and Ashfield have eight each, Belchertown and Chesterfield both count seven. The Worcester County town of Ashburnham had the most, with 12 modern wood heating systems.

Examples of prominent buildings that use wood heating systems include Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, Sanderson Academy in Ashfield and the Mass Audubon Society’s Easthampton location.

At Cooley Dickinson, the hospital’s wood heating system has been in place since the 1980s, with assistance from the federal government. It also continues to receives subsidies from the state. The hospital continues to receive daily deliveries of locally sourced wood chips for fuel.

“Cooley Dickinson runs its plant at one-third of the cost of what it would cost with natural gas or oil,” said Christina Trinchero, a hospital spokeswoman. “Wood chips are sourced from Wagner Wood, a local supplier based in Amherst. This savings allows us to reinvest dollars back into hospital priorities, such as patient care, staffing and improvements to our facilities.”

Currently, less than 10% of energy produced in Massachusetts is fueled by renewable resources. Of that, 8%, a little more than a quarter, is produced by wood, with the rest coming from solar, wind, landfill gas and burning of refuse, according to ISO New England.