Biomass opponents mostly air the negative at Mass. meeting

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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. -- A panel of speakers spoke against the use of biomass as fuel for electricity generating purposes Saturday, in Fellowship Hall at the First Congregational Church of Williamstown. The event was organized by the Bennington-Berkshire Citizens Coalition, formed in response to the proposed biomass facility in Pownal, Vt.

The three panelists were Chris Matera, Rachel Smolker, and Hillary Lister -- a resident of Athens, Maine, where one biomass facility was shuttered and another one subsequently proposed was derailed after public opposition.

Lister told the audience that the biomass facility in her town opened in the 1980s and operated for "a number of years without too many issues that people knew about," until the facility began burning construction and demolition (C&D) materials, as a cheaper source of fuel. The change occurred at multiple Maine biomass plants, Lister said, with only minor amendments to the facilities' fuel licenses.

Beaver Wood Energy, LLC, the developer of the proposed biomass facility in Pownal, has stated that the Pownal facility would only burn waste wood, never C&D materials, which can include treated and painted wood, along with small amounts of plastics and metals.

"They may say they're only going to burn wood," said Lister, "and that may be the case, for now. But they're lobbyists [Thomas Emero, managing director of Beaver Wood Energy LLC] is an attorney, he's a lobbyist, this is what they do."

The biomass facility in Athens was closed in 2002, after numerous state emissions violations and a fuel pile fire in 2001 that smoldered for nearly a month. The plant was dismantled and sold to paper products manufacturer Georgia-Pacific Corp., but two years later Athens was chosen by GenPower Services, LLC, as the site for a replacement biomass facility.

Emero, then director of renewable energy products for GenPower, in testifying against a state amendment to limit the amount of C&D materials burned in Maine biomass facilities, wrote in 2006 that, "in order to compete in the energy markets today, biomass plants must burn an ever-lower grade of fuel, and fuel needs are now being satisfied in part by C&D Wood Fuel the economics of this business is such that there is a trend toward using the lowest cost fuels, which today means C&D Wood Fuel."

The proposed Athens facility was designed, according to Emero, to burn up to 100 percent C&D materials, but a moratorium and later town ordinance banning the fuel source ultimately prevented the proposed 42-megawatt GenPower facility from being built in Athens.

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Smolker, of the U.S.- and U.K.-based Biofuelwatch, identified herself as a "climate activist" to the Williamstown crowd on Saturday, and said that she considered biomass for electricity and fuel the "greatest threat to the environment besides climate change itself." She framed the Pownal debate within the broader international context of finding renewable fuel sources.

"Because plant matter has low energy density," Smolker said, "it takes a ton to get the same amount of energy as a small amount of oil, or coal." She contrasted the inconsistencies between the United Nations' REDD, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest degradation in Developing countries, program, with the rise in use of biomass to generate electricity in the United States and Europe.

"Three-quarters of support for renewables in Europe is going toward biomass," she said. "They're not 50-megawatt, they're 300-, 350-megawatt. And they're importing 80 percent of the material from the U.S." Smolker cited a proposed 350-megawatt facility in Wales, United Kingdom, that would source wood chips from Alaska. She blamed a "loophole in the language" of international renewable energy programs. "[That] loophole that lets us pretend there are no emissions from burning biomass is purely an accounting error."

Matera, a civil engineer by profession and member of Massachusetts Forest Watch, made the case that New England's forests could not handle the number of biomass facilities currently operating and proposed in the area. He presented a slideshow of the affects of "clear cutting and its variants" on public and private land in Massachusetts, and said that forest areas were now in decline in New England, after increasing for a number of years.

"The reason I bring this all up, is when you hear that, if they build a biomass plant, there are laws in place to protect the forests, [or] the forestry profession will protect the forest -- it's not true. The laws in place are not followed."

Matera cited five proposed facilities currently on the drawing board in Massachusetts, which would require 2.5 million tons of wood to produce an additional 1 percent of power in the state annually.

"These plants would not be happening if it wasn't for the enormous amount of money being thrown at them," said Matera. Thirty percent of the startup cost, he said, can be recouped through federal stimulus money, while annual renewable energy tax credits and biomass crop assistance programs can total $20-25 million a year in federal incentives. "Hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars are going into smoke stacks, that are supposed to be going toward green energy," he said. "We shouldn't be lumping together biomass with things like solar . basically, clean energy doesn't come out of a smoke stack."

During the ensuing question and answer period, a number of audience members asked what they could do to stop the proposed facility in Pownal. One man's suggestion to build a paper mill at the former Green Mountain Race Track received universal groans from the audience.


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