My Turn: Renewable wood energy deserves our careful consideration

  • MICHAEL MAURI

Published: 8/8/2021 5:31:14 PM

I commend Sen. Jo Comerford for advocating vigorously for cleaner air and energy that is more sustainable. The challenges are monumental. In her recent op-ed referring to Springfield as “the asthma capital of the nation” (“What gets defined as renewable energy?” My Turn, July 29), the senator voices opposition to a particular large biomass plant proposed for Springfield. But she also appears to disparage energy from wood in general. In doing so, I respectfully argue that the senator overlooks some important points. And in a spirit of sharing her hope for a better energy future, I would like to add the following clarifications to the discussion.

First, Springfield is no longer the asthma capital of our nation. New England Public Media, our local NPR station, reported in June that Springfield is now ranked No. 12. Not as bad as Allentown, Pennsylvania (the new asthma capital), or Philadelphia, Springfield is slightly worse than Hartford and Boston (see the website of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America).

Separately, according to the American Lung Association, Springfield is not currently in the top 24 of any of the three separate air pollution categories of ozone, year-round particles, and short-term particles.

None of this is to say that the air quality in Springfield is OK. But perhaps the real point of such lists is that many places in our country need better air. And with no biomass plant to blame in Springfield (it was never built), the actual causes of Springfield’s poor air quality remain as unresolved as ever.

How is it that asthma rates have dropped in Springfield? Reporting by New England Public Media points to the sharing of asthma-related knowledge and the implementation of improved health-related practices. As we all learn more about indoor ventilation and respiratory health overall, perhaps there are further gains to be made in this regard.

Secondly, in speaking out against biomass energy, Sen. Comerford casts a blind eye on the important and multi-faceted role of smaller scale biomass energy right here in her own backyard. At Cooley Dickinson Hospital, for example, wood chips are burned onsite to help supply heat, hot water, air conditioning (yes), and electricity. Steadily operating a 600 hp facility right behind the hospital, Cooley has been using wood chips as a significant energy source ever since the mid-1980s. If you’ve ever enjoyed a fresh sheet at Cooley Dickinson Hospital, chances are it was washed in water heated out back by wood. And with 140 beds to continually wash sheets for, that’s a lot of hot water!

Most of us do not consume as much energy as a hospital, but for many of Sen. Comerford’s constituents, burning wood for winter heat is an important part of their household economy. Furthermore, some of her constituents own the forests that provide this woody resource, and some constituents even work in the industry that manages and delivers wood products. In each of these cases, the existence of an appropriate and viable capacity to use a portion of the harvested wood as biomass energy improves forest management options in our region and adds value within the community. And we all benefit from the ability of biomass energy to help us clean up storm- or pest-damaged trees in neighborhoods and along roads and power lines.

Finally, the senator states that the science says “No” to biomass. But science does not work that way. Science can measure or at least estimate risks and benefits. In doing so, science can zoom in or zoom out. Zoomed in to smokestack, wood (like pipeline gas) is seen giving off problematic smoke; zoomed out to the whole lifecycle, wood, thriving in its forested habitat, uniquely removes pollutants from the air. Finally, science can help us compare options. But science cannot decide for us. It is up to thoughtful people to put all of the relevant scientific and other information into a useful perspective and then carefully and creatively consider what to do next.

Just as windmills and solar panels can be sited disruptively or at excessive scales, so, too, can there be misapplications of biomass. We need to be smart. I hope Sen. Comerford will take a forward-looking approach that explores and encourages appropriate applications of biomass in our region. As we strive to keep ourselves supplied with energy in the most sustainable way possible, let’s not lose sight of the small but nonetheless positive, renewable, reliable and decentralized role that can be played by our own local wood, which grows.

Michael Mauri is a forester based in South Deerfield.




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