Burning wood for electricity was once a hot idea in Massachusetts.
Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration committed $1 million to spur wood power plant development, which a 2007 state-funded report predicted would bring hundreds of jobs and an economic boost worth tens of millions of dollars.
The best part? It was seen as green, a way to meet the state’s clean energy demands with a renewable energy source as old as the campfire.
Today, wood has been reduced to a bit role in the Patrick Administration’s renewable energy plans.
Regulations proposed this month virtually eliminate any chance large, wood-fired electricity plants can be built in Massachusetts, according to advocates for power from wood, also called biomass.
Massachusetts officials note that none of the designs for wood power plants now planned in the state meet the proposed new efficiency standards. They say they hope to “redirect” the industry to build smaller, combined heat and power units, used at sites such as industrial parks.
Wind and solar are developing faster than any renewable energy sources in Massachusetts, and the state is confident it will reach its renewable power goals relying on them, said David Cash, undersecretary for policy at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
The slide in standing for wood power when there is increasing demand for renewable energy has stunned Bob Cleaves of the Biomass Power Association.
“It is just breathtaking,” he said. “And really bizarre.”
Until recently, wood was viewed as a renewable source on par with any in Massachusetts. The 2007 report for the state by the University of Massachusetts estimated nearly $80 million in annual economic output and almost 600 new jobs with new biomass energy plants in the state. Massachusetts has one existing plant in Fitchburg.
A state study in 2008 envisioned wood power would contribute more megawatt hours of renewable electricity than either solar power or onshore wind by 2020.
Wood power’s problems came as the state changed its views on wood’s carbon emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions must be drastically cut by 2050 under Massachusetts law.
Advocates argue wood power is carbon neutral because the carbon released by burning wood is eventually reabsorbed by new forest growth. But opponents, led by the citizens group Stop Spewing Carbon!, say it’s a dirty technology that releases much more carbon than trees can quickly absorb.
A state-commissioned report last year by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences indicated that burning a certain type of wood at large-scale plants would give off more carbon emissions by 2050 than coal-fired plants.
In response, the state promised to write stricter rules for the wood plants. Stop Spewing Carbon! then dropped a planned ballot question that would have required the tighter rules.
Massachusetts’ proposed rules now demand unprecedented efficiency from large wood power plants in order to qualify for renewable energy credits that such plants need to be financially viable. Right now, the plants would operate at about 25 percent efficiency. The new rules say they must operate at 40 percent efficiency to qualify for even half a credit.
Cleaves said that standard can’t be reached yet. He said large wood plant developers who invested millions believing they had state support have been badly burned by “a precedent that I have never seen anywhere in the United States.”
He blamed misinformation from Stop Spewing Carbon!, which he called a “small, vocal, extreme minority,” for pushing the Patrick administration into a purely political decision.
Cleaves also said the state’s carbon worries are severely overstated and based on a misunderstanding. He said the Manomet study focused on the effects of burning wood cut from growing forests, which has a higher carbon cost because it takes such a long time to regrow.
But he said wood power plants rely instead on abundant “waste wood,” including logging leftovers and storm-downed trees, that is far cheaper and has a lower carbon cost.
The state wants to get 15 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2020, but Peter Bos, developer of a proposed 50 megawatt plant in Russell, said “Without biomass, I don’t think the state will reach its goals. Bos notes biomass is available around the clock, unlike wind and sunlight. Questions about high costs have also dogged wind and solar development.
Meg Sheehan of Stop Spewing Carbon! said wood power is so dirty, it should it should never have been part of the state’s clean energy plan. She added it’s “simply preposterous” to believe the Patrick administration changed the standards to appease her group, given the clout of the wood energy industry.
“To think they haven’t had an equal opportunity to make their case to regulators and to politicians is on its face just ridiculous,” she said.
Cash said the state was worried both about the carbon impact of wood power and preserving the state’s wood supply.
“Though renewable over time, wood is a limited resource, and we should use it as efficiently as possible,” he said.
Political pressure has nothing to do with the new regulations, Cash said.
“This was driven by science,” he said.
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