New state regulations effectively protect 90 percent of Massachusetts municipalities from new wood-burning energy facilities, which scientists say are dirtier than fossil fuel plants. But, those rules leave 35 towns, including seven in Berkshire County, open to new biomass plants.
That doesn’t sit well with lawmakers, scientists and activists, who want the state to go further and fully eliminate the possibility of new biomass generation.
“It is an issue to me that this administration keeps pushing burning wood,” said William Moomaw, the lead author of several reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
“And the solution is not to dump it on those people in the western part of the state because there aren’t many of them and they don’t count,” added Moomaw, a Williamstown resident who taught at Williams College for 26 years before moving to Tufts University, where he is professor emeritus of international environmental policy.
The new regulations prevent biomass projects from qualifying for the state Renewable Portfolio Standard if they are within 5 miles of an “environmental justice” community, a community disproportionately impacted by environmental harm. While observers see that as a recognition by the state that biomass plants can adversely affect health, they question why the state did not take a stronger stance.
“It boggles my mind that there’s a recognition that pollution is a reason we don’t want these biomass plants in environmental justice communities and five miles beyond, but that towns right outside that buffer, mostly in western and central Mass., would not be protected from those pollutants,” state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, said. “Is the administration saying that this is a policy we’re not pursuing anymore as a commonwealth, or that they want to push these facilities into 35 towns only?”
Hinds said he represents 17 of those 35 towns, including Becket, Monterey, Mount Washington, New Marlborough, Otis, Sandisfield and Sheffield in Berkshire County.
Department of Energy Resources Commissioner Patrick Woodcock told lawmakers at a Friday hearing that the new rules are “extremely unlikely to make a new biomass plant financeable” in Massachusetts but may result in a small increase in biomass energy regionally, since out-of-state facilities can qualify for the program. He added that while the biomass plants are “statutorily” eligible under the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard, he is willing to work with lawmakers as they seek to develop long-term policies on biomass.
Woodcock, however, defended existing biomass facilities in Gardner and Northampton that qualify for the standard.
Moomaw said that some people see biomass as a carbon-neutral energy source due to a flawed belief that replanting trees absorbs the carbon dioxide that was emitted during generation. But, he said, trees take decades to absorb all that carbon dioxide, whereas burning wood takes mere minutes and emits proportionately more carbon dioxide than burning coal.
A long, local opposition campaign to a proposed biomass facility in Springfield played a role in the rules change. The new rules prevent Springfield, often called the “asthma capital” of the nation, from seeing any new biomass projects.
Jane Winn, executive director of Berkshire Environmental Action Team, argued that while it was necessary for the state to protect environmental justice communities from biomass, allowing new biomass plants anywhere in Massachusetts would hurt all communities. That’s because “air travels,” Winn said, and biomass generation releases high levels of particulate matter that hurt heart and lung health.
“Even if put biomass all the way out in the western part, it’s going to affect air,” added Rosemary Wessel, director of BEAT’s No Fracked Gas in Mass campaign. “And it’s going to affect climate, which affects us all.”