Officials question emissions of large scale wood-pellet boilers planned for Charlemont, Ashfield schools

  • University of Massachusetts scientist Richard Peltier discusses pellet boilers at a FRCOG training session for town officials. PHOEBE WALKER/CONTRIBUTED PHOTO—

Recorder Staff
Published: 7/27/2016 10:47:19 PM

GREENFIELD — With two West County elementary schools preparing to install grant-funded wood-pellet boilers, the Franklin Regional Council of Governments’ conference room was packed Tuesday night with town officials, health board members, selectmen, energy industry representatives and environmentalists seeking answers. In particular, they wanted to know about how large-scale systems affect air quality and what regulations are in place to safe-guard communities against potential air pollution.

Greenfield Community College already has four wood-pellet boilers that put out 190,000 Btu/hr (British thermal units per hour). But two more large-scale boiler systems are in the design stages for the Hawlemont Regional School in Charlemont and Sanderson Academy in Ashfield. Hawlemont is planning for five pellet boilers putting out 190,000 Btu/hr, and Sanderson’s plans call for three 190,000-Btu/hr boilers.

The Mohawk Trail School District had considered applying for a grant to replace its inefficient propane-fueled system with wood-pellet boilers — a plan that raised a lot of community concern about emissions from the Buckland Board of Health and from biomass opponents. In the end, Mohawk opted to stay with propane, but the process made boards of health question what role, if any, they play in any siting for large-scale pellet systems.

According to Marc Wolman, a state Department of Environmental Protection’s branch chief for regulations and permits, the size of the GCC and other school pellet boilers fall below the DEP “permit threshold” for large-scale systems. Comprehensive plan approval (CPA) is required, he said, if the energy input per unit is 3 million Btu/hr with automatic feed, or 1 million Btu/hr with manual feed. CPA requires stringent emission limits, data on ambient air quality, proper stack design, fuel quality criteria, and monitoring, record-keeping and reporting conditions.

The smaller school systems, including GCC’s boilers, do not require this CPA process. Examples of large-scale pellet systems that do require it include those at the Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton and Mount Wachusett Community College.

Wolman and Richard Peltier of the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences pointed out that the new wood-pellet systems produce more heat and less ash than other wood-burning systems, but that there is not much health data available about “the chemical composition of exhaust” from wood pellets. Among the unknowns are trace metals and any cancer-causing elements.

Strategies proposed to reduce exposure to pellet emissions included thoughtful siting, effective stack heights to carry the particulates away from where there are people, operation conditions, sensors and gathering baseline data before the pellet system is in operation, to determine how much air quality is affected.

Some asked how anyone could be certain that the pellets weren’t made from construction/demolition wood that may contain toxic materials. Peltier said the SAPHIRE grant put out for school projects requires pellets that are certified to meet a set of EPA standards.

Several in the room raised questions about whether the cutting down trees or the energy spent to manufacture pellets countered the sustainable energy, environmental gains of burning wood.

The Council of Government’s Peggy Sloan explained that the purpose of the session was to answer town officials’ questions about wood heat emissions and standards — and that climate change-related issues about tree-cutting or pellet manufacturing was a topic for another discussion.

“The pellet-manufacturing process emits way more than gas,” said Beth Adams of Leverett, who is part of a group called MassForestRescue. “There are greener, cleaner options. I have cancer; I’m sure it came from air pollution, and that’s why I’m speaking. There is no perfect energy.”

As a grandmother, she said she wouldn’t want to put little children into a school with a pellet system, “knowing what I know today.”

Peltier said the “whole idea of looking at any biomass is relatively new.” He said Europe is ahead of the United States in studying the emissions issues. “The information we know is mainly in the chemistry,” he said. “We haven’t been able to make that jump between what’s in the pellets, and are they harmful?”


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