Boston — The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has suspended controversial biomass power plants from its renewable energy plans, according to a letter posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). State officials concede that unresolved “scientific questions about sustainability of biomass energy, both from a forest management and greenhouse gas perspective” will force a halt to renewable energy certifications for at least a year, and perhaps longer.
The so-called woody biomass program was the centerpiece of Governor Deval Patrick’s renewable energy plan. One small plant exists and three more are in the permit process, with still other projects under consideration. Critics, including PEER, point to major problems with Gov. Patrick’s plan, including –
- Fuel requirements for the plants would require at least a quadrupling of current logging rates in Massachusetts forests, degrading their ability to provide clean water or wildlife habitat;
- There would be immense water losses, nearly 2 million gallons a day, to meet plant cooling and boiler flushing needs; and
- Harvest and transport of wood fuel would consume millions of gallons of diesel fuel, erasing potential greenhouse gas reductions from burning a renewable fuel.
Perhaps an even greater drawback is the amount of “conventional” air pollution the plants would emit including fine particulate matter and pollutants that combine to cause smog. Two of the three plants currently in the permitting process are in areas identified as already having significant environmental justice concerns – areas already burdened by high levels of pollution, asthma, and elevated childhood blood lead levels.
“Governor Patrick’s biomass plan is renewable madness,” stated New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, a biologist and attorney formerly with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Besides insurmountable pollution and resource impacts, this misguided program takes funding and renewable energy credits away from truly renewable and clean technologies like wind and solar energy.”
“The amount of biomass power under development in Massachusetts would require a massive increase in forest cutting to provide fuel,” stated Mary Booth, founder of the Massachusetts Environmental Energy Alliance, a group that works with PEER on energy issues. “Recent science makes it clear that increasing forest harvesting and burning will not only be a massive source of greenhouse gas emissions but will also degrade the forests’ ability to lock up atmospheric carbon.”
In a December 3, 2009 letter, Department of Energy Resources Commissioner Philip Giudice announced that the state “will suspend its consideration of biomass energy applications” under its renewable energy program “and anticipates that this suspension may last approximately one year to allow time for…review and subsequent regulatory process” but will allow state air pollution and water permitting to continue in the interim. This suspension may last far longer as opponents have qualified a measure for the November 2010 ballot to limit air pollution from biomass incinerators.
“Massachusetts cannot incinerate its way into a sustainable energy future,” Bennett added, noting that the three pending plants would amount to less than 1% of Massachusetts’s electricity generation capacity.