Monday June 7, 2010

PITTSFIELD -- Two renewable energy projects in the Berkshires are being threatened by the potential for a statewide ballot initiative aimed at preventing a biomass plant in Russell.

One of the local projects is an effort to grow oil-rich algae, harvest the oil and use it to fuel 100 percent of the power needs on a local farm. The other is a biofuel plant being planned to provide energy for Crane & Co.

The ballot initiative, orchestrated by StopSpewingCarbon, a state group based in Cambridge, began in reaction to plans for a wood-burning biomass plant proposed at a former paper mill in Russell.

The group's first effort to ban biomass plants was defeated earlier this year in the state Legislature. Now it is collecting signatures to get on November's ballot. The group has gathered more than 100,000 signatures, needing only 11,000 more by the June 16 deadline.

The initiative, if passed, would end state subsidies for energy projects that produce more than 250 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour.

State subsidies are essential to financing any renewable energy plant.

Supporters of biomass contend that no energy generation operation, other than wind, hydro, tidal or solar, can meet that requirement.

As worded, the initiative would also prevent state subsidies for other forms of energy production, including the algae method.

Opponents say wood-burning biomass plants have higher carbon emissions than coal-burning power plants.

"It is an unacceptable threat to the public health," said Margaret Sheehan, chairwoman of the anti-biomass campaign. "All subsidies for these plants should be removed."

Information provided by the Committee for a Clean Economy, a group opposed to the ballot initiative, says that coal-burning plants have five times higher emissions than the proposed plant in Russell would.

Opponents of the ballot initiative also say that generating energy using renewable, homegrown fuel sources helps in a number of other ways, including creating local jobs, keeping energy dollars close to home and reducing dependence on fuel produced in other nations.

Growing oil-rich algae would produce biofuel for farm equipment, according to Edward Esko, founder and president of Berkshire Green Energy, which is developing the project. The goal is to grow enough algae in a confined space to take the farm off the grid.

If the process works, the next step would be to produce a gasoline-grade algae for use in cars.

"This could be our ticket to energy independence as a region and as a nation," Esko said. "Growing algae requires a fraction of the land needed for fuel crops such as soy and corn. The yield of algae per acre per year dwarfs that of others crops and makes it one of the most efficient methods for converting carbon dioxide and sunlight into energy."

Officials with StopSpewing
Carbon, however, said that any form of combustion to generate energy is unacceptable.

"No matter what you're burning, if you're emitting climate-warming chemicals then you shouldn't be considered a renewable energy source," Sheehan said.

Peter J. Clarke, president and CEO of Western Massachusetts Electric Co., is against the ballot initiative. He said that public utility companies are seeking a combination of renewable energy sources to comply with upcoming green energy requirements. If these energy technologies are taken off the table, it would mean higher electricity rates and a migration of renewable energy development to other states, he said.

"As currently written, the ballot petition places unreasonable restrictions on the development of green energy projects," Esko said. "If passed, it would severely impact the ability to advance innovative clean-tech projects such as our biofuel technology that is dedicated to helping Massachusetts farmers gain energy independence."

To reach Scott Stafford: sstafford@berkshireeagle.com (413) 496-6241.