What is biomass?
“Biomass” means any living matter. The kind of biomass used as a fuel source for the existing and proposed plants in our area is woody biomass from sources such as slabs, used pallets, sawdust, and other byproducts from sawmills and industry, and also low-grade trees, stumps, and trimmings from private woodlots and public land. These materials can be turned into energy in a variety of ways, including burning them directly to produce heat (for example, in a woodstove or fireplace) or boil water for steam, or burning them more indirectly to produce gases that can be used to do various kinds of work (for example, turning a turbine to produce electricity).
What existing and proposed biomass electric plants are in our area?
One biomass plant, Pinetree in Westminster, currently operates with an output of 18 megawatts. There have been proposals for a 47 megawatt plant in Greenfield and a 50-megawatt plant in Russell. (NOTE: This statement was written in 2008; the Greenfield project was off the table by 2013.)
What is North Quabbin Energy’s position on these plants?
We oppose building or investing in large-scale biomass plants, particularly those that will only produce electricity. We have many concerns about the plants, but the main ones are:
- this is a highly inefficient, wasteful use of a precious and limited natural resource and of money that could be directed to smarter types of energy generation
- these plants follow the old model of large-scale, centralized, business-as-usual energy-production, which is exactly what we need to change if we’re really going to build a “greener” way of living.
We believe that woody biomass can be an excellent fuel source if it is harvested in a responsible way, if it is burned cleanly and efficiently, and if most of its embodied energy potential is turned into power. For economic and technical reasons, these conditions are unlikely to be met at the scale of the proposed plants in Greenfield and Russell.
Why is it inefficient to make electricity with biomass?
At its most efficient, this method uses only around 25-30% of the energy potential of woody biomass. For example, the projections made by the Pioneer Renewable Energy plant call for using 500,000 green tons of wood a year with 350,000 megawatt-hours of electricity to be delivered to the grid. This amounts to an overall yearly efficiency of 23.8%, meaning that about three-quarters of the potential energy embodied in the wood will be wasted. There are much smarter ways to make electricity, and much smarter ways to use biomass. Combined heat and power (CHP) plants, such as are the norm throughout Europe, make far more effective use of biomass fuel, with efficiency rates around 80%.
Okay, so it’s inefficient. But at least it’s “green,” right?
Only in the most superficial sense. Although these plants use wood instead of coal or uranium as their fuel source, they’re still following the old pattern of using a limited resource in ways that will have destructive long-term consequences, and which is very wasteful and inefficient to boot. While this is something of a move in a “greener” direction, it isn’t a smart move. It’s like putting wind turbines into a valley or facing solar panels toward the north; you’ll be generating energy, but at such low efficiency that it doesn’t make technical or economic sense. It’s true that we need to take many baby steps in our shift toward more responsible habits of energy use, but plants like the ones being proposed in Greenfield and Russell are extremely expensive baby steps (the Greenfield plant has a $250 million price tag, paid for in part with our “renewable dollars” from our utility bills, and from investment tax credits). The model of large-scale, centralized, resource-intensive energy production is what has to change if we’re really going to develop truly clean and sustainable sources of energy. In a very important sense, “big” and “green” don’t go together.
Don’t these plants burn material that would otherwise go to waste?
It depends on how you define “waste.” While some of the potential fuel (used pallets etc.) is waste, large amounts of wood from the forest are also needed to keep a big biomass plant operating profitably. This wood is “waste” if you’re looking at it as a source of profit in the generation and sale of electricity. But it’s not wasted in terms of the forest ecology, where it provides crucial soil and plant nutrients, wildlife habitat, protection for our water supply, carbon sequestration, erosion control, and other functions. Much of this “waste” wood is also useable for wood pellet production, cordwood, and other sectors of the wood products industry. The addition of large biomass generating plants will put a strain on supply for other wood businesses as well as for the forests they (and we) depend on.
Won’t the forest just grow back?
Yes, but with decreasing productivity. Silviculturalists (scientists who study forests) tell us that for the long-term health of the forest, foresters need to leave the smaller parts of trees on the forest floor, where the branches, tree tops, etc. can perform all the important ecological functions listed above. Non-commercially-profitable woody biomass can be harvested in an ecologically responsible way, by taking only the stem wood and leaving the tops in the forest. But the reality is that at the low prices that companies are likely to be willing to pay for their biomass, foresters won’t find it profitable enough to use the more sophisticated cutting equipment (such as high-production feller processors and forwarders) that would separate out the stems from the tops on site. The kinds of machines currently used in New England to harvest for biomass fuel use are feller bunchers and grapple skidders that have to take whole trees, robbing the forests (and us) of all the ecological functions listed above. Large biomass plants can’t be economically feasible if they pay the price needed to have biomass harvested in responsible and sustainable ways.
What would a “greener” model of energy production look like?
We should be pursuing diverse, localized, highly efficient ways of producing and using energy. A more sensible use of biomass is to develop small-scale combined heat and power generating plants dedicated to very local uses–for example, a school, hospital, or specific neighborhood. (Mt. Wachusett Community College’s Biomass Conversion Project is a successful example of this kind of plant.) We should also be supporting large-scale insulation and weatherizing projects that make it more feasible for more people to heat their homes partially with clean-burning wood, pellet, and other biomass stoves. With the funding now available for clean energy technology (including investment tax credits and our “renewable dollars” collected through state utilities), we should invest in many, many smaller projects rather than a few mega-projects that don’t change our basic patterns of energy use. The $250 million cost of the Greenfield biomass plant would fund 50 or 60 small district heating plants, or countless solar installations and deep-energy retrofits on old buildings. We urgently need change, but it should be smart change, not short-term “solutions” that will only create more future problems.
What are some actions I can take if I’m concerned about a biomass plant proposal in my area?
- Learn more about the issue by following some of the links on this page to studies and other materials.
- Keep in touch with efforts in Greenfield to oppose the building of biomass electric plants there.
- Speak out by writing to elected representatives and others involved in making decisions about area biomass plants.
- Attend area informational and planning meetings. Pose questions about efficiency, supply, economics, and alternatives.
- Join or start a group working to develop sustainable biomass generating facilities in our area.