Mass. rethinking plans for wood-burning power plants

Opponents seek to place limits on emissions

By Steve LeBlanc
Associated Press / November 8, 2009

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The Patrick administration is rethinking its support of wood-burning power plants, a key element of its long-term strategy to wean the state off fossil fuels.

Wood, also known as biomass, has long been part of the state’s portfolio of renewable energy sources, along with solar, wind, and geothermal.

But some environmental activists say biomass plants could lead to the clear cutting of forests while pumping more carbon dioxide into the air than coal plants, adding to global warming. That criticism has ramped up recently in Western Massachusetts.

The administration has already invested $1 million to jump-start four proposed wood-burning plants in Russell, Greenfield, Springfield, and Pittsfield as it tries to meet the goal of producing 15 percent of the state’s energy needs from renewable sources by 2020.

State Environmental Affairs Secretary Ian Bowles says the administration now wants more information about the possible negative effects of the wood-burning plants.

“Difficult questions about biomass have arisen in the past year,’’ Bowles said. “We are asking those hard questions and asking them in a way that no other states have asked them.’’

Bowles said he wants more information about the greenhouse gases the plants emit and how they can be operated while also maintaining forests. Bowles is ordering a six-month study of the issue as the Department of Energy Resources develops new regulations for biomass facilities.

Biomass technology was included with solar and wind energy when the state developed its “renewable portfolio standard’’ in 2002. The portfolio requires utilities and other electricity suppliers to deliver an increasing percentage of renewable energy to their customers - a move designed to provide financial incentives for developers of green energy sources in Massachusetts.

But Meg Sheehan, an attorney based in Cambridge, calls biomass “a false solution to the climate change crisis.’’

“They are trying to convince the public that this is clean and green when it is neither,’’ she said. “It is an incinerator that burns wood.’’

Sheehan is pushing a ballot question that would severely restrict the amount of carbon dioxide the plants can emit. If supporters can gather enough signatures, the question would appear on the 2010 ballot.

Other opponents of wood-burning plants include Dr. James Wang, president of the Hampden District Medical Society. He released a letter last month saying the proposed biomass plant in Russell presents “an unacceptable threat to the health of the citizens of the Pioneer Valley.’’

Biomass plant owners say it’s unfair to lump in wood-burning plants with coal-burning plants.

They argue that every megawatt of power produced by wood-burning plants replaces a megawatt produced by a coal plant. They also argue that unlike coal, trees left standing can absorb the carbon dioxide released when wood is burned. And the trees cut down for fuel can be replanted.

Bowles said the state is planning a public meeting in Western Massachusetts in late November to hear concerns about the biomass plants. He said he expects the state to eventually approve stricter regulations on the plants.