Wood pellets in short supply

Flames shoot out from a burn pot of a pellet stove. A shortage of fuel for pellet stoves is impacting the area.

The state's effort to jump-start a local wood-fuels industry is misguided, a coalition of environmental groups and scientists said Wednesday, and contributes to climate change despite being represented as renewable energy.

In a letter to Gov. Charlie Baker, the groups call for an end to financial incentives to commercial projects that encourage wood-burning to produce heat or electricity. One such program recently steered $1 million to a wood-chip processing endeavor run by Windsor resident Tim Crane.

The letter, organized by a Western Massachusetts research outfit and also sent to members of the Legislature, says the state should invest in better alternative energy sources. It calls Baker's support for wood as fuel "inconsistent with your publicly stated positions on climate change."

"The commonwealth should not be incentivizing technologies that will accelerate climate change, worsen air quality, and use our forests for fuel," the letter said.

Among the groups signing are the Sierra Club, Environment Massachusetts, MassPIRG and Clean Water Action. Local groups include the Berkshire Environmental Action Team of Pittsfield and Green Berkshires of Great Barrington.

One of the scientists who signed is William Moomaw of Williamstown, a Tufts University professor and expert in climate change. Moomaw says it is "absurd" for the state of Massachusetts to endorse the use of a fuel source — wood — that results in the release of greenhouse gases while cutting back on the ability of forests to remove carbon dioxide through photosynthesis.

"To force taxpayers to pay for it when less costly zero-emitting alternatives are available is mystifying," Moomaw told The Eagle.

A spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs said the Baker administration will review the letter, which was organized by the Partnership for Policy Integrity, based in Pelham.

Katie Gronendyke of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs said the Baker administration "remains committed to reducing the Commonwealth's greenhouse gas emissions, meeting our targets under the Global Warming Solutions Act and lowering energy costs for ratepayers through the promotion of renewable energy technologies."

James McCaffrey, legislative director for the Partnership for Policy Integrity, said ramped-up efforts by the Baker administration to nurture use of wood as a fuel source run counter to what lawmakers had in mind when they amended what's known as the Alternative Portfolio Standard to include renewable heating sources.

Those steps, the letter says, set high standards for biomass to be eligible, including measures of emissions and greenhouse gases.

But when regulations were adopted in 2017, the letter argues, they failed to fully account for greenhouse gas releases through the burning of wood and "created loopholes allowing unlimited numbers of whole trees to be treated as low-carbon 'residues.'"

"As a result of these lax regulations, the [Alternative Portfolio Standard] is now incentivizing wood-burning heating systems that could exceed emissions from the fuels they are replacing by orders of magnitude," the letter says.

"They basically ignored the voices of the environmental community that was asking them to strengthen it," McCaffrey said in an interview, referring to the alternative energy standard.

He said he believes the forest-products industry has succeeded in promoting use of wood as fuel, despite findings by researchers that burning wood releases more carbon dioxide than coal.

"The state has really partnered with them to make these programs happen," McCaffrey said. "They have ignored the science on this."

In February, the state awarded $2.8 million in grants to five organizations, including Crane's. The state said the grants further the availability of "low-carbon, renewable heating fuels."

But the environmental groups argue in their letter to Baker that the grants "will accelerate climate change and negatively impact public health."

The letter questions claims in a Feb. 11 press release that the grants will result in a lowering of greenhouse gas emissions.

Instead, the groups say, the use of wood as a fuel source will exacerbate climate change, which also releasing "large quantities of fine particulates (soot) and other air pollutants."

"The lifecycle carbon impact from the harvesting, processing, and combustion of woody biomass fuel is not carbon neutral no matter how the wood is sourced," the letter says.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.