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Developing a Sustainable Biomass Forest Industry: Case of the U.S. Northeast

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Issue date: 
September 2009
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Timber Procurement


Who isn't in search of clean, cheap energy? Policy makers, residents and investors around the region are, and they are taking a close look at biomass energy, that is, burning low-grade wood or other plant materials for high-tech electricity generation.

There are three large-scale biomass plants proposed for western Massachusetts, in Springfield, Greenfield, and Russell. Together they could provide electricity for as many as 135,000 homes, help the state meet goals for renewable energy, and create jobs. But they could also change the character of the region's woodlands, send numerous trucks through residential neighborhoods and emit toxins into the air. And there is little consensus on just how "renewable" the resource is. These are some of the questions about biomass we'll explore in this half hour of Focus Western New England.

Small Scale Biomass on the Quabbin Reservoir

We take a look at the biomass boiler at an administrative building for the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, on the Quabbin Reservoir in Belchertown. This buidling's history reflects the changing economics of energy-use. Seventy years ago the structure was heated by a coal furnace that had to be staffed 24-hours a day. In the 1950s the state switched over to oil, and last year, switched again—to a woodchip biomass boiler. It's in the basement, and it will save the state an estimated 4 million dollars over thirty years.

Proposed 50 Megawatt Biomass Plant in Russell Stirs Controversy

Larger biomass plants burn vast amounts of woody materials to make steam which, in turn, powers a turbine to make electricity. These plants are often controversial. The handful of biomass power plants proposed in western Massachusetts are pitting developers against neighbors, and exposing divisions in the environmental community. That's certainly the case in Russell, where a proposal for a 50 megawatt biomass power plant has roiled this small town now for several years. We visit the site of the proposed plant on the banks of the Westfield River, and here from both sides of the debate. The web holds a plethora of information about Russell Biomass from both sides of the issue. See the developer's website, a group of residents organizing in support of the proposed plant, called Russell First, and Concerned Citizens of Russell, a group opposing the plant.

Taking Stock of the Forests

As more large scale proposals to burn wood and other plant material for energy are being developed, one question being raised is how the region's forests would be affected. Some say biomass energy is a smart use of New England's under-utilized forest-resources; others see it as a threat to the ecosystem. And some, like Professors David Damery and Matthew Kelty, say it all depends on how the resource is managed. They teach in the Department of Natural Resources Conservation at UMass Amherst and they co-authored a paper that looks at the ecological, economic, and social issues raised by the prospect of a biomass industry in the northeast. You can read the paper online: "Developing a Sustainable Biomass Forest Industry: Case of the U.S. Northeast"

Is Biomass Energy Renewable?

The science is still developing on many important questions: can the forest regenerate fast enough to take up carbon dioxide emitted when wood is burned? Or, just left in the woods to decay, might downed trees emit more such greenhouse gases than if they're burned? The lack of certainty can add a note of contention – and confusion – to the debate. Some mainstream environmental organizations are wading in only cautiously. More on whether biomass qualifies as being renewable is available from: Massachusetts' state policy on biomass, the Massachusetts Environmental Energy Alliance (a group that opposes the biomass plants in Russell and elsewhere in western Massachusetts), the Union of Concerned Scientists, and a Pew Center on Global Climate Change report on Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards in various states.





Extpub | by Dr. Radut