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Greenfield biomass project appears dead

Deadline passes without action

The 47-megawatt wood-burning biomass project proposed in 2009 for Greenfield appears dead.

A deadline for a developer to amend the special permit application for his $250 million Pioneer Renewable Energy project in the industrial park passed Tuesday.

Madera Energy Inc. failed to meet the deadline set March 15 by parties to an appeal of the town’s approval of the project.

The Franklin County Superior Court lawsuit was filed by abutters appealing the original Zoning Board of Appeals’ special permit for the wood-burner. As a result, Amherst attorney Alan Seewald, representing Susan Weeks and James Hume, both of Adams Road, petitioned the court Wednesday for a final judgment to formally annul the special permits that were granted nearly four years ago, on July 22, 2009.

Matthew Wolfe, principal for the Cambridge-based energy development firm, acknowledged Wednesday, “We didn’t file, we’re not in a position to file, and frankly, we don’t have any plans to do anything in the short-term.”

Plaintiffs in the case complained that the ZBA did not take all issues into consideration when making its decision and complained about pollution, noise and traffic they predicted would result from the project. They also complained that the special permit had been invalidated because it was based on a wet-cooling system that Madera had since decided to replace with a dry-cooling system. In a referendum, town voters rejected sale of the town’s treated wastewater for the wet-cooling.

“I’m relieved, I guess, for the moment,” Weeks said about the turn of events. “I feel it’s a great example of what informed citizens can do to rally and look into the issues. It’s a really great thing for the people who live in the county. We’re fortunate for the resources we have and the way of life we have. I think it (a large biomass plant) would have affected it a lot.”

While Wolfe backed away from ruling out future development of a wood-fired electricity generation plant on the Mackin Construction Co. site just north of the I-91 Industrial Park off Adams Road where his firm retains a purchase option, he said, “I think it’s clear to everybody that if we were to do anything, it would have to be different than what our original plans were for.”

Far more important than the type of cooling method used, he said, is the set of state regulations issued last summer that restrict the efficiency of biomass plants that are eligible for Renewable Energy Credits under the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard program. Those credits, used to attract private financing for biomass plants, which had been touted as renewable alternatives to coal- or natural gas-burning generators, were seen as crucial for financing the project.

Those new rules, which came after a state-sponsored 2010 study that found wood-fired generating plants release more heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per unit of energy than oil, coal or natural gas, require an efficiency rate of at least 60 percent for such plants to receive a full energy credit, and for halving greenhouse gas emissions over 20 years, compared to a combined-cycle natural gas plant.

Wolfe said, “The regs they came out with would not allow for the project to qualify for RECs in Massachusetts. It’s been pretty clear all along that without those RECs, this project doesn’t move forward. In order to qualify, there would have to be changes to the project, if the project could qualify at all. In order for there to be changes, we would have to go before the different permitting agencies with something different than what was originally considered.”

Wolfe said that he wasn’t actively pursuing any such “very, very substantial changes, likely lessening the impacts, the size and the number of trucks,” largely because the economics of energy projects have been dramatically changed by natural gas prices that remain 25 or even 20 percent what they were when he started work on the Greenfield project in 2008.

“Combine that with the RECs going away, and you don’t have a project that makes a lot of economic sense,” said Wolfe.

Although the project was originally touted as a way to use the region’s abundant wood resources and generate electricity while emitting fewer greenhouse gases than generating plants burning fossil fuels, it faced almost immediate opposition from local and regional officials and residents questioning the scale of a project that required burning an estimated 1,500 tons of wood a day and the effects on air quality, including carbon dioxide emissions, as well as use of the town’s waste water to cool the plant.

Janet Sinclair of Shelburne Falls, who was among those actively opposing the biomass plant, said, “It’s really been a long haul. It’s a great thing.”

She sees the decision to not pursue plans for the plant as “the culmination of a lot of things,” including petition drives and legal action to fundraising efforts and volunteer efforts poring over technical documents and scientific studies.

“There were so many people involved, close to 100 volunteers,” she said.

The new regulations issued by the state’s Department of Energy Resources were also cited by proponents of the 50-megawatt Russell Biomass project for canceling that project last fall in western Hampden County.

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