My Turn: Must stop subsidizing wood-fired energy




Published: 04-04-2024 5:01 PM


The Massachusetts Legislature is considering a bill that would once again increase subsidies for burning wood, taking the state in the wrong direction in the name of “clean” energy.

Biomass energy has been a controversial topic in Massachusetts for many years — at least since 1997, when the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard (RPS) became law. The RPS established ratepayer-funded subsidies for wood-burning power plants (along with subsidizing solar and wind power, and other renewable electricity generating technologies).

Public pressure, led by people from western Massachusetts, resulted in a Patrick Administration study that determined that burning forest wood for energy emits more CO2 than fossil fuels (per unit of energy generated). After years of additional advocacy efforts, the Legislature finally took woody biomass out of the RPS altogether in 2022. What remains in other programs, however, are incentives for wood heating and one arcane provision promoting biomass electricity.

Logging and burning forest wood for fuel don’t just negatively impact ecosystems and the climate — wood-burning is also extraordinarily bad for human health. According to the most recent EPA emissions data, while just 12% of Massachusetts homes heat with wood in some capacity, residential and commercial wood burning accounted for 92% of all fine particulate (PM2.5) emissions from Massachusetts’ heating sector and 31% of the state’s total PM2.5 emissions.

PM2.5 emissions are the leading cause of air pollution-related illness and death in the United States. Why would legislators want to increase the number of homes, businesses, and institutions heating with wood, in turn exposing sensitive populations and other already overburdened communities to increased air pollution?

Gov. Maura Healey pledged to end subsidies for forest bioenergy for electricity and commercial-scale heating as part of her climate platform, stating that “burning wood for bioenergy depletes our forests, increases greenhouse gas emissions, and is a threat to human health.” So it’s unfortunate that a bill has recently emerged from committee, with little fanfare or support, with a brand-new provision that doubles incentives for biomass heating, purportedly intended “to improve air quality” — nearly Orwellian language, considering the disproportionate role of wood heating in polluting our air.

More than 100 state and local environmental, public health, and environmental justice organizations have endorsed the removal of woody biomass from all clean energy programs in Massachusetts. We’re calling on state lawmakers to finish the job on bioenergy. Specifically, woody biomass combustion must be removed from the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard (APS), which provides incentives for wood heating, and from the greenhouse gas emissions standard for municipal lighting plants (MLPs), the municipally owned utilities that operate in 41 towns throughout Massachusetts.

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Massachusetts ratepayers have already spent millions of dollars to promote wood-burning technologies through the APS. The newly proposed legislation to further incentivize wood heating units will ultimately serve to increase air pollution and its impacts, using dedicated clean energy funds paid for by Massachusetts ratepayers. This initiative should be rejected, and biomass taken out of the APS altogether.

But as harmful as it is to promote polluting biomass heating in the APS, a holdover from climate legislation passed in 2021 is arguably even worse, defining biomass as a “non-carbon-emitting” resource under the newly created greenhouse gas emissions reduction standard for MLPs. This is not only in conflict with objective reality, but will allow out-of-state biomass power plants that are more polluting than coal to qualify for a program intended to reduce carbon emissions in Massachusetts.

It also leaves open a potential revenue source for the proposed Palmer Renewable Energy biomass plant in Springfield, which is still fighting in court to reinstate its permits. It makes no sense, when the state has removed biomass electricity from the RPS, which governs retail electricity suppliers, to still promote it in the standard for municipal-owned utilities.

The Legislature must close the MLP loophole by deleting biomass from the definition of “non-carbon-emitting” resources to ensure that no future biomass contracts are initiated. The need for regulatory certainty and the time required to negotiate long-term power-purchase agreements in New England means the Legislature needs to act in this legislative session.

Let’s clean up our clean energy programs for good and finally eliminate all ratepayer-funded incentives to burn wood. To be clear — no one is saying that homeowners, businesses, and the industrial sector can’t burn wood. However, the public shouldn’t have to pay for it with their health or their clean-energy dollars.

Katy Eiseman of Cummington is program manager at the Partnership for Policy Integrity.