Lawmakers weigh wood-burning for energy, heat

By SAM DRYSDALE

State House News Service

Published: 07-12-2023 12:17 PM

BOSTON — Facilities that burn wood to create energy should not be eligible for credits under a state program that rewards generators of “clean heat,” advocates said last week, arguing that two bills would close loopholes in the state’s climate laws.

The so-called climate roadmap bill approved in 2021 “inadvertently” defined woody biomass (burning wood for energy) as a non-carbon emitting resource, James McCaffrey, New England legislative director at the Partnership for Policy Integrity, said at a committee hearing.

“Biomass is a carbon emitting resource,” McCaffrey told the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy. “It has more emissions at the stack than any other fossil fuel, including coal or natural gas, and it emits fine particulates into the atmosphere and causes other significant health problems, especially in at-risk populations, like children, the elderly ... So that’s why we are asking the Legislature to basically close this loophole that we believe was accidentally created or not thinking about the implications of when it was created in the 2021 roadmap bill.”

The bill filed by Rep. Orlando Ramos and Sen. Adam Gomez (H 3210 / S 2136) would remove biomass from the greenhouse gas emissions standard for municipal lighting plants, written into the 2021 law. The standard requires all 40 municipal lighting plants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050, but allows the use of renewable energy — currently including biomass fuel.

Gomez and Ramos, each of whom represent parts of the western Massachusetts city known as the asthma capital of the United States, filed bills in 2021 to remove state incentives for facilities that burn wood products to generate power — which were eventually included in the climate law the Legislature passed last year.

Under the new law, a woody biomass facility can only get renewable energy credits for the electricity it generates if it was already getting those credits as of Jan. 1, 2022, qualifying only two small facilities to continue receiving credits, WBUR reported.

A second bill before the committee, also filed by Gomez and Ramos (H 3211 / S 2137), seeks to close a loophole under which biomass facilities can still get state support. Under the climate law passed last year, biomass is still eligible for credits under the “Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard” program, meant to reward facilities that generate “clean heat.”

“We ask that we basically, for consistency’s sake, for leveling the playing field, that we take out woody biomass from the alternative portfolio standard as well,” McCaffrey said.

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McCaffrey was one among many who came to testify in favor of these bills.

“Municipal light plants that use biomass are emitting a tremendous amount of carbon, and the plants that use biomass are also emitting all kinds of pollutants, including particulates,” Pittsfield resident Judy Gitelson said. “The smaller the particulates, the more deeply they go into your lungs. So I’d like to say we desperately need to keep the trees in our forests rather than burning them anywhere.”

Interim director of the Massachusetts Climate Action Network Logan Malik said the inclusion of biomass in the climate bills provides support for “harmful resources” while simultaneously failing to prioritize clean energy, like solar and wind.

“It’s important to note this does not take away folks’ ability to burn wood to generate heat,” McCaffrey said. “This does not take away anyone’s wood burning stove in their house or anything like that. What this does is basically removes the opportunity for people to get incentives or clean energy dollars, or publicly-funded clean energy dollars, in order to do so.”

Chris Egan, executive director at the Massachusetts Forest Alliance, said there is “widespread misunderstanding” about biomass power and modern wood heating. The organization advocates for a “sustainable forest economy,” “responsible forest management practices,” and the “continuation of working forests on public and private lands,” according to its website.

Modern wood heating, Egan said, are “highly advanced furnace or boiler systems” that people have in their basement to heat their homes. They’re fed on wood pellets or chips, and often replace oil burners in rural areas with limited access to natural gas.

Egan argued that these heating systems do help toward decarbonization efforts, citing the Massachusetts Clean Energy website.

The site operated by the state Department of Energy Resources says, “Biomass is also considered a viable source of renewable thermal energy for the commercial sector.”

He added that, though the bill includes language that would only apply to “intermediate and large modern wood heating systems” that the majority of systems in single family residences are considered to be intermediate or large.

“Proponents of these bills seem to think that large modern wood heating systems like those that heat a school, farm or hospital, are somehow comparable that gigantic biomass power plants like the 43 megawatt plant that was formally proposed in Springfield, but it’s a ludicrous comparison because even the very largest modern wood heating systems, such as heating a hospital campus, are 30 times smaller than the Springfield biomass plant,” Egan said.

He added that “if air pollution is a concern” that there are other bills to address the issue.

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