Plant to power Ashfield lumber biz draws ire

  • Forest detritus could become fuel for a gasification plant that does not burn wood products but instead generates methane through a composting-like process. Recorder file photo

For the Gazette
Published: 6/24/2018 8:21:25 PM

ASHFIELD — A long-planned wood-gasification plant for Roberts Brothers Lumber Co. has drawn fire from dozens of residents around the region, even though the business says it has no firm plans at this time for the project for which it has received hundreds of thousands of federal and state dollars.

The project, which the company has described in the past as a 2-megawatt, $8-million cogeneration plant to power its sawmill and provide heat for its drying kiln, was the target of concern by 79 residents from around the region who mailed a letter to U.S. Rep. Richard Neal on May 11 in anticipation of what they said was a planned May 18 meeting with representatives of the 71-year-old forests products business.

But owner Leonard Roberts and spokesman Evan Dell’Olio — who is also described as vice president of Roberts Energy Renewables, a “sister” corporation formed in 2011 — say the meeting with the Springfield congressman was planned to talk about the region’s agricultural issues.

Roberts, who is president of the Franklin County Farm Bureau, said, “We’re trying to advocate for agriculture here in Franklin County because more farms are closing and dairy farmers are under dire straits because of milk prices right now. That’s why we were trying to get them all together.”

But the meeting, which was also to have included state Reps. Paul Mark, D-Peru, and William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, was canceled at the last minute “due to changing schedules,” according to Neal spokesman William Tranghese. He added that meeting “to discuss a local energy project,” would be rescheduled through talks that are ongoing.

The letter, whose signers included 33 Ashfield residents but also a few people as far away as Wilbraham, Quincy and West Simsbury, Conn., raised “strenuous concerns” about the wood-gasification plant, objecting over public funding for “biomass” power generation, which they said could cause “dire health effects.”

The group wrote, “In light of aggressive promotion of bio-energy by the wood-products industry ... we are concerned that our congressman is taking private meetings with a biomass developer. … We ask that you stand with us and reject treatment of biomass as clean energy, and use your office to oppose policies that support any and all public funds for biomass energy.” In recent years, some people and groups have raised concerns about commercial wood harvesting in western Massachusetts that would feed wood-burning heat and electricity generator plants. A gasification plant is different in that it does not burn wood products but generates methane through a composting-like process. The resulting gas is then burned for its heat or in an internal combustion engine to drive an electric generator.

Dell’Olio, who prefers to characterize the 70-year-old sawmill and its accompanying tree farm as an agricultural operation, insists that nothing is happening, at least not yet with respect to a gasification plant.

“The fact that the congressman chose to pursue a different schedule that day, and he hasn’t rescheduled, shows there’s no pressing need right now to have a conversation,” Dell’Olio said.

But he acknowledges that a gasification plant — originally described as a “closed-loop system” that would power the sawmill and kiln by pressure cooking at 1,300 degrees dried wood chips from its own waste and low-grade wood — is one of the options being evaluated to decide “how we want to proceed in the next year.” An undated information sheet from RER, which projects construction to begin “in late summer of 2017,” explains, “For several years the lack of 3-phase power at our Spruce Corner Road location has stifled the growth of our forest products operation and that lack of adequate electric power has resulted in the mothballing of ⅓ of our sawmilling equipment and an inability to use our dry kiln for the seasoning of lumber. Without access to adequate electricity, our business will close and over 30 associated jobs will be lost forever.”

Roberts Brothers received a $400,000 Massachusetts Technology Collaborative grant for a feasibility study in 2006, as well as a $277,336 Value-Added Producers Grant from USDA Rural Development in 2008 and $490,006 from the Renewable Energy for America Program for the project. It was also awarded $1 million from the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources in 2013 to provide a three-phase connection to the electric grid.

Dell’Olio said, “There isn’t a project before any board or commission that could be here in Ashfield. There’s been an idea of looking at a project in some regard in the past, not as a commercial, utility-scale plant but just as a small system to essentially supply electricity and heat the farm.”

He added, “Presently, nothing is being constructed here; no building permits have been filed. There have been no pushes on that front recently. It was a really hot project that was moving along, but now it is not something going forward.”

As for Roberts Energy Renewables, which describes itself on its website — — as a “developer and operator of renewable bioenergy facilities based upon the abundant supply of organic wood waste from forest products operations” in the Northeast — he said it’s “looking at opportunities, regionwide, that might present good avenues for meaningful energy development. There’s nothing material I could say that Roberts Energy Renewables is involved in right now.”

Roberts himself describes any project that would make the sawmill operation less dependent on diesel generation as akin to any other piece of agricultural apparatus, like a methane digester for a dairy operation, to which he’s entitled by right.

“When a farmer buys a new bulk tank or puts something new in his barn, does he have to notify the whole town? … If I’m doing anything, it’s just a piece of farm equipment I might be adding down the road. … If I put a new evaporator in my sugarhouse, do I got to have a frigging town meeting?”

If neighbors are concerned, it’s apparently not without reason. The scheduled meeting with Neal to discuss “a local energy project” follows an Ashfield Conservation Commission meeting last month to delineate a wetland buffer on Roberts’ property where Walter Cudnofusky, one of the letter signers, said he believes Roberts wants to locate a power-generation wood-using plant that would make use of a proposed three-phase power line for distributing some of the excess electricity generated.

The Ashfield Select Board last November approved three new utility poles along Spruce Corner Road for Roberts Lumber to bring three-phase power to its property. Eversource spokes-woman Priscilla Ress said the addition of three-phase power to the property appears to be waiting only for a single additional permit, possibly from the state.

Dell’Olio, asked about the permit or the Conservation Commission request, had no response.

Worry about environment and trees

Meanwhile, residents say they’re concerned about additional truck traffic as well as the potential impact on air and water quality as well as the forests.

Peter Wildermuth, who lives half a mile from the sawmill, has attended meetings including the recent Conservation Commission session as well as an August 2011 Selectboard presentation by Roberts of plans for a $3 million gasification plant described as the first of its kind in North America.

Yet, Wildermuth says, “We really don’t know any specifics, and I think that’s my biggest concern.”

He adds, “The equivalent of four tractor-trailer loads of woody biomass would be processed every day, assuming that this is a 2-MW plant. I don’t think that millions in taxpayer dollars should be spent on any technology which could lead to further deforestation.”

Former Selectboard member Ronald Coler, who is not among the signers, says, “I believe if it’s from a sustainably managed forest, it’s a good idea to be using wood as a resource. I totally believe in the (gasification) technology.”

In view of the way that he’s seen wood gasification applied on farms in Italy, Coler, an engineer with a degree in forestry, said, “If we want our farms to survive, we have to think creatively.”

Dell’Olio says, “I think there has been a serious misunderstanding. It certainly would be in our interest to have more dialogue with those asking questions.”

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