Just off I-291 in East Springfield is a seemingly unremarkable plot of land. Sandwiched between an electrical switchyard, busy roads and a working class neighborhood, the fenced-in property is mostly barren, aside from some machinery for making asphalt in one corner and a few tall piles of gravel and crushed rock.
But the site, owned by the Palmer Paving Corporation, sits at the center of a long-standing environmental justice fight over a proposed wood-burning, or “biomass,” power plant.
If built, the facility would be the state’s only large-scale biomass plant and would burn about 1,200 tons of wood per day in a city the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America has ranked the “Asthma Capital” of the country. Until now the plant has been on hold because biomass isn't profitable in Massachusetts. But this could change early next year with new state rules about who qualified for renewable energy subsidies.
Though touted by supporters as “green” and “renewable,” burning wood for electricity is relatively inefficient and releases a lot of planet-warming greenhouse gases — a megawatt of electricity produced by burning wood actually releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than a megawatt generated from coal.
Critics of biomass also call it "dirty," since these facilities regularly emit soot and pollutants like mercury and lead. And a biomass plant like Palmer would have diesel-burning trucks delivering wood every hour, adding to the pollution.
“Springfield is an environmental justice community. There’s a high concentration of Black and brown people in this community, and a biomass plant is just bad for everyone,” says Tanisha Arena, executive director of Arise for Social Justice, a nonprofit that aids and advocates for lower-income residents of Springfield.
She says most people who come into her office for services have inhalers, and that she regularly speaks with parents who can’t let their children play outside on certain days because it aggravates their asthma.
“I've had little babies in the office with asthma. It's like, you ain't even been here but a couple of months. How do you have asthma?" she says. "And that’s without a biomass plant ... Why in this community can’t we say ‘no thank you,’ and have that be the end of it?”
First proposed in 2008, the Palmer plant remains in a sort of limbo because current state rules make it difficult to operate a wood-burning biomass facility and turn a profit.
The plant’s developer, the Palmer Renewable Energy company, did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but environmental groups like the Conservation Law Foundation and the Partnership for Policy Integrity (PFPI) say it’s likely the company’s calculation about profitability will soon shift, allowing it to start construction.
That’s because early next year, the Baker administration plans to change how the state awards lucrative renewable energy subsidies.
Under the current rules, a plant like the Palmer facility isn’t eligible for renewable energy credits because it doesn’t meet the state’s efficiency standards. But should the changes go into effect, PFPI policy director Laura Haight estimates that the facility could get $13 million to $15 million a year in subsidies — enough, she says, to make it worth building.
The Pros And Cons Of Biomass
Humans have been burning wood for heat for a very long time, making biomass our oldest energy source.
In modern times, most big biomass plants are built to generate electricity. And while they can burn all sorts of plant and organic material to do that, most New England facilities burn “woody” biomass: whole trees, tree tops and limbs, leaves, sawdust, scrap wood, utility cuttings, wood pellets, diseased or dead trees and other forest residues.
Biomass is controversial around the world for the impact it has on climate, forest ecology and public health, and also because burning wood to create electricity is not very efficient. Wood isn’t a very dense energy source, and burning it creates a lot of “thermal waste” — i.e., heat that can't be used to turn a turbine.
There are some biomass facilities that use this thermal waste — and therefore reach high efficiency levels — but they tend to be relatively small setups in places like hospitals or college campuses and don't produce anywhere near the amount of power that an electricity-only biomass plant like Palmer would.
According to Haight, the average coal plant is about 37% efficient while new natural gas plants can reach 60% efficiency. Most wood-burning biomass plants are in the high teens or low twenties, though Palmer says its new state-of-the-art plant in Springfield will be 29% efficient.
People who support building woody biomass plants say it helps support the logging and agricultural industries while also creating a much-needed market for waste material like sawdust, utility trimmings and certain construction debris that might otherwise end up in a landfill. Many also say it's “renewable” and “carbon neutral” because we can replant trees to reabsorb the carbon released during combustion.
Those who oppose biomass, however, point out that even in the most advanced plants, burning wood emits harmful pollutants that have been linked to respiratory problems, heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
Additionally, they worry that building biomass plants can incentivize logging and monoculture — planting fast-growing trees at the expense of biodiversity. They say framing the waste wood problem as a choice between dumping wood in landfills and burning it is disingenuous, since there are other ways to use or dispose of this material.
People opposed to biomass also take issue with the argument that it is renewable and carbon neutral. Burning wood releases a lot of carbon suddenly, and it can take decades for new trees to grow big enough to absorb enough carbon to offset those emissions.
Calculating the net impacts of burning wood is complex science, but about a decade ago, Massachusetts actually did it. And it used the results to inform state policy.
Mass. Calls In The Scientists, And Comes Up With Pioneering Biomass Rules
In 2002, Massachusetts passed a law requiring utilities to purchase increasing amounts of renewable energy every year. The so-called Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard (RPS) also spells out what power sources count as “renewable” and how they can qualify for renewable energy subsidies.
It was fairly easy for electricity-only biomass plants to qualify, and by 2008, three companies were proposing to build “renewable” biomass plants in Springfield, Greenfield and Russell. Environmental and public health advocates didn’t like the idea of giving these facilities millions of dollars of ratepayer-funded renewable energy subsidies, and prepped a ballot initiative to make biomass plants ineligible for this money.
In 2009, Gov. Deval Patrick suggested the state study the potential climate impact of biomass before changing any policy. He asked the advocates to hold off on their ballot initiative in the meantime. They agreed, and in 2010 Patrick asked the Manomet Center to produce a report about the short and long-term carbon impacts of biomass in Massachusetts.
The 182-page report corroborated what the anti-biomass folks were saying: burning wood to generate electricity is theoretically renewable, but it can take a very long time for trees to reabsorb the carbon emitted.
The Manomet team calculated that it would take 90 years of tree growing efforts to offset the difference between building similarly sized biomass and natural gas plants, because megawatt for megawatt, biomass emits more carbon than natural gas.
As promised, the Patrick administration used the Manomet study to rewrite the state's renewable energy criteria for biomass. Under the 2012 rules, a biomass facility was only eligible for subsidies if it used sustainable forest products, reached an efficiency standard of 60% and had fewer net carbon emissions than a gas-fired plant over 20 years.
These rules were pretty strict, and since only small combined heat and power facilities could qualify, two of the three proposed biomass plants in Massachusetts were cancelled. The company behind the Palmer plant didn’t technically withdraw its application, but momentum for the facility fizzled and activists assumed plans for the plant were dead — that is, until the Baker administration announced it was changing the rules.
Baker Administration Proposes A 'Rollback'
In 2019, the state’s Department of Energy Resources (DOER) proposed changes to the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard criteria in order to “streamline” all department rules, and reduce costs. The new regulations will affect a variety of power generators, but the most contentious changes involve wood-burning biomass plants.
Right now, only really efficient biomass plants can get renewable energy credits, but under the new rules, those standards would be waived for any plant — like Palmer — that gets at least 95% of its fuel from “non-forest derived residues.”
“Non-forest derived residues” is a technical way of saying any woody material that doesn’t come from a forest. This includes post-consumer wood waste, some agricultural products, trees cleared for agricultural uses, landscaping or storm debris and whole or partial trees cut down to maintain utility lines.
The DOER declined multiple interview requests, and when asked specifically why the administration proposed changing the rules, responded with the following statement: “The Baker-Polito Administration is committed to reducing the Commonwealth’s greenhouse gas emissions, lowering energy costs for ratepayers, and positioning the Commonwealth to meet its ambitious climate targets through the promotion of renewable energy technologies.”
Those applauding the proposed rule changes say that giving biomass plants renewable energy credits for using waste wood is not only climate friendly, but good common sense.
“Using material that otherwise does not have a use and making something productive and valuable out of it [is] resourceful and practical," says Carrie Annand, executive director of the Biomass Power Association.
Chris Egan of the Mass Forest Alliance agrees: “I think most people are missing the boat on what DOER is trying to do,” he says. “The focus of these regulatory changes is to make more productive use of wood that doesn't come from the forests … There's just a massive amount of that material [and] what DOER is proposing is to be able to use that material to displace fossil fuels and get a carbon benefit.”
Victor Gatto, chief operating officer of Palmer Renewable Energy, did not respond to requests for comment, but spoke favorably of the proposed changes during a public meeting in 2019 as a way to deal with the state’s waste wood problem.
“The current tree trimmers have no alternative — you can’t put wood in a landfill here in Massachusetts, there’s no other use for it,” he said. “So by taking that tree-trimming wood that we have to produce anyway for the safety of a utility line, rather than leaving it sitting on the ground, we’re using it for a productive use.”
But opponents of the DOER’s proposal say these arguments fall short for three reasons. First, it’s not entirely clear that there is a “massive” waste wood problem in the state, and second, even if there is, burning it for electricity is not the only solution — the state could set up special composting sites for the material, for instance.
The third problem with the proposal, according to CLF staff attorney Caitlin Peale Sloan is that unlike the current rules, there’s no science to back up the changes.
“[DOER] didn’t do any updated forestry or climate science work to get to these new changes. They are just relying on representations from the biomass industry,” she says.
The Manomet report only looked at the impact of using “forest-derived” wood fuel, like leftover materials from logging operations, and didn't calculate the carbon impact of burning non-forest materials like scrap wood, which are less likely to be offset by planting new trees, she says.
“Nobody’s done the studies in New England, and to implement a policy like this one without having done that doesn’t seem very prudent to me,” says Thomas Walker, one of the lead authors of the Manomet study. He says he's not taking a side in the debate over DOER's proposals, but that we probably "don’t want to open this huge potential for wood to flow into the energy system without understanding the implications.”
“Why now, after 10 years, would the state weaken its own regulations?” asks Springfield City Councilor Jesse Lederman. The Baker administration “talks a big game about environmental justice,” but these rule changes seem “in violation of the principles that they supposedly hold ... I think the administration needs to answer for that.”
The new biomass rules are poised to take effect in early 2021 — maybe even as soon as Jan. 5 — and opponents of the Palmer plant fear the the changes will pave the way for the company to start construction soon after.
“We’re in the middle of a pandemic that gives folks respiratory issues. Is this really what we want to do? Do we want to harm a community that has already been designated as an environmental justice community?” Arena says.
“I live here, my kids live here, my friends live here. I have to breathe what they burn — I’m not OK with it.”