Mass. moves to limit wood-burning power plants

By Steve LeBlanc
Associated Press Writer / July 7, 2010

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BOSTON—Activists have pulled a threatened ballot question targeting wood-burning power plants after Massachusetts officials moved to impose new limits making it harder for the "biomass" energy facilities to be built in the state.

Environmental Secretary Ian Bowles said in a letter Wednesday that the state will set stricter greenhouse gas emission standards for biomass plants to obtain renewable energy certificates.

Bowles said the change follows the release last month of a study that found that power plants using trees from New England forests would end up releasing more greenhouse gases than coal-fired electric plants over a 40-year period.

"We have a deeper understanding that the greenhouse gas impacts of biomass energy are far more complicated," Bowles said in the letter. "It is essential that state funding and incentives reflect this change in the incentives we provide biomass energy."

As a result of the letter, Meg Sheehan of the Stop Spewing Carbon Ballot Campaign said the group will drop a ballot question that would have severely restricted the amount of carbon dioxide the power plants could emit.

Sheehan said the change in regulations will make it harder for biomass power plants to operate in Massachusetts.

"Citizens have let government officials know they don't want their taxpayer and ratepayer money spent on these toxic incinerators disguised as 'clean energy,'" Sheehan said. "Science confirms that the greenhouse gas emissions of burning forests are worse than coal."

Wednesday was the deadline for submitting a final batch of voter signatures to secure a spot on the November ballot. Sheehan said the group had more than enough signatures to put the question to voters.

Biomass has long been part of the state's portfolio of renewable energy sources, along with solar, wind and geothermal energy.

The Patrick administration has already invested $1 million to jump-start four proposed wood-burning plants in Russell, Greenfield, Springfield and Pittsfield, as it tries to reach the state-mandated goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.

But the state started rethinking support of biomass power plants after environmental groups said that burning wood pumps too much carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to the greenhouse effect.

Biomass plant owners have long argued that it's unfair to lump wood-burning plants in with coal plants. They say that every megawatt of power produced by wood-burning plants replaces a megawatt from a coal plant. But unlike coal, they argue, trees left standing can absorb the carbon dioxide released when wood is burned.

And trees cut down for fuel can be replanted. If done in a sustainable way, they say, the annual growth in trees replanted or left standing will be enough to recapture the carbon being released.

To try to settle the question, Massachusetts commissioned a study from the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences.

The study found that biomass-fired electricity would result in a 3 percent increase in carbon emissions compared to coal-fired electricity by 2050.

Coal is considered one of the chief culprits of greenhouse gas emissions.

Researchers arrived at the figure by comparing how much carbon is emitted into the atmosphere through the burning of wood -- what they termed "carbon debt" -- with the amount of carbon removed from the atmosphere from the regrowth of forests, or "carbon dividends."

While the new regulations do not ban wood burning power plants, they do make it much harder for the plants to receive state financial support.



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