Proposed Local Biomass Plants Debated

Biomass - burning wood and other organic products for energy and heat - has elicited intense passions throughout the Pioneer Valley as proposals to build plants in Greenfield, Springfield and Russell receive public airing.

Opponents of the plants argue they are being fast-tracked through the permitting process without adequate study of their environmental impact or whether the region can produce enough wood to supply the plants. (Biomass foes add that investing in energy efficiency programs --which help low-income people to reduce their electricity use and to insulate and weatherize their homes -- makes the most sense.)

Supporters say it makes more environmental and economic sense to burn wood for heat and energy instead of coal or oil.

The Massachusetts Forest Landowners Association is one of the chief supporters in the area on biomass, although President Cinda Jones says the association does not support specific plants, but rather the idea of biomass.

Jones, a ninth generation principal of Cowls Lumber in Amherst, emphasized that the association only supports sustainable forestry, meaning harvesting does not exceed the natural forest growth rate of about 2 percent a year. She said by practicing sustainable forestry, Cowls has been harvesting trees from the same land since 1741.

Jones said it is relatively easy to harvest land in a sustainable manner, but much harder to practice good forest management, which entails cutting dying and diseased trees to allow healthy trees more nutrients and space to grow.

As of now the market for this low-grade wood is small, which is why Jones said "family forests need biomass," as it would give landowners an economic incentive to manage their forests well. (This could help protect open space by giving forestland owners an alternative to selling their land for house contruction.)

David Richard, an Amherst forester with the Department of Conservation and Recreation, agreed that good forest management is important.

Forests are "just like a garden," Richard said. "If you have your vegetable plants planted an inch apart, your garden is going to produce a lot less vegetables than if they were planted a foot apart, and the same is true of trees."

Richard said a well-managed forest will consume more carbon dioxide and give off more oxygen, which is better for the environment.

Costly to weed a forest

It is significantly more expensive to weed a forest than a vegetable garden, which is why Richard said it is "very important" for forest landowners to have a market for low-grade wood.

"People are more apt to practice good forest management if the management can pay for itself or even produce modest returns," he said.

Landowners have wanted a low-grade wood market for decades, said David Kittredge, professor of forestry at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

"It has been a Holy Grail quest of sorts," he said. "The conundrum has always been, ‘We wish we could thin our forests, but we can only cost effectively do that if we have a market for low-grade material.' "

About 70 percent of Massachusetts forests are privately owned, which makes Kittredge believe potential land loss is the largest problem facing the state's forestland. Creating a market for low-grade wood would help prevent this land from being developed, but in Kittredge's opinion much more is needed.

"We should be paying landowners to hold on to their forests, but instead we tax them for owning land," he said. "It's perverse."

Besides expanding the market for low-grade wood, the three proposed plants would also create about 600 temporary construction jobs, about 100 full-time jobs and supply electricity to about 140,000 homes.

Concerns raised

The proposed plants also have disadvantages. According to Scott Keays, spokesman for the American Lung Association of Massachusetts, the plants would decrease the already poor air quality western Massachusetts.

"We've always been known as the tailpipe of America, and biomass plants would only make that worse," he said, noting that the plants would produce many hazardous pollutants, including nitrous oxide, lead and mercury.

Jana Chicoine, spokewoman for Concerned Citizens of Russell, a group which opposes construction of the Russell plant, sees biomass as a beast with an insatiable appetite for local wood.

"Large plants guzzle wood at a seemingly inconceivable rate, which is a terrible waste of our natural resources," said Chicoine. "The plant would destroy the very thing that gives western Massachusetts its identity."

Chicoine also noted that the Russell plant plans only to generate electricity, which is about 25 percent efficient, which in her opinion means the plant "will not practice truly renewable or clean energy."

Russell resident Pandora Hague said the area needs industry, "but this biomass plant is a bad idea."

"I think it's going to ruin the town of Russell, I think property values are going to drop, and I'm really concerned about air pollution because I have asthma. I'm afraid," said Hague.

John Boss, spokesman for the Russell plant, said although the plant would pollute, it's still better than coal. "Which would you rather burn in your fireplace at home," he asked, "coal or wood?"

The Russell and Greenfield plants would burn wood, while the Springfield plant would burn construction and demolition waste, which is more harmful to the environment.

Critics also point out the Springfield and Russell plants only plan to generate electricity, which has an efficiency rate of about 25 percent, while heat generated from biomass has about a 75 percent efficiency rate. The Greenfield plant is planning to generate both heat and electricity.

The proposed plants are large, ranging between 35 megawatts, which would require 455,000 tons of biomass per year, and 50 megawatts, which would require 650,000 tons per year.

Already in the Valley

Biomass has been present in the Valley on a much smaller scale since 1985, when Northampton's Cooley Dickinson Hospital installed a wood chip burner to provide heat for the facility. A second burner was installed in 2006 and the two consume about 21,900 tons of biomass per year, which saves the hospital an estimated $360,000 a year compared with using fossil fuels for heat.

Jones said using biomass on a community level, as Cooley Dickinson does, makes fiscal and environmental sense.

"The more you can fulfill your needs locally, the better it is for the environment and the economy," she said. "It would be better for Amherst High School to produce heat through a biomass incinerator with local, sustianably harvested wood than with oil from the Mideast."

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This article originally appeared in the Amherst Bulletin newspaper. It's used here with the author's permission.

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