Without flashy turbines or shiny fields of photovoltaic panels, biomass is a relatively obscure corner of the renewable energy world. But in recent months, plans for three large wood-fueled biomass plants in Western Massachusetts have brought it plenty of attention — much of it unflattering — and the fallout has implications for Central Massachusetts businesses that were never so controversial.
The proposed plants, in Russell, Greenfield and Springfield would generate a total of 135 megawatts of electricity a year, and while developers tout them as an efficient, renewable alternative to fossil fuels, some say they would make too much pollution and use too many trees (see page 24 for a related op-ed piece). Now, plant opponents have gotten a question placed on the 2010 ballot that would forbid any energy plant from getting the benefits of a "renewable" label if it generates too much carbon dioxide. There's also a bill in the legislature that would ban biomass plants from burning construction debris.
Most recently, in early December, the state Department of Energy Resources placed a moratorium on applications for new biomass plants to qualify as renewable power sources while the state conducts a study of the issue.
All this makes life difficult for Jim Sweeney. Sweeney, of CCI Energy LLC in Plymouth, is planning two 12-megawatt biomass plants for Fitchburg, which are now in the permitting process. He said getting recognized as renewable power sources is "very crucial" for the plants. Getting the designation would mean more money when the plants start generating electricity. And knowing that the extra money will be coming in is important when CCI looks for construction funds.
If the ballot initiative passes, Sweeney said, that could permanently keep the plants from qualifying as renewable. It would say that no facility labeled as renewable could emit more than 250 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour of energy produced.
"I don't know if there's a plant in the United States that falls under that," he said
The largest biomass facility now operating in the state is near the sites of CCI's proposed plants, just over the Fitchburg line in Westminster. Pinetree Power Fitchburg Inc. is a 17-megawatt facility run by a Texas company, and it's been online since 1992. Plant manager Chris Bourque said the plant burns gas from the nearby Fitchburg-Westminster landfill, waste from a paper recycler and forestry byproducts.
"We get the part of the tree that historically they would have just chipped and left in the forest to just rot," he said.
But Bourque said Pinetree doesn't qualify as a renewable power source under state law because it doesn't have enough emission controls. Although there's currently no regulation of how much CO2 renewable plants can produce, the state sets limits for nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter.
Bourque said the plant might consider limiting its emissions to qualify as a renewable source in the future, but as long as the moratorium is in place it wouldn't make the necessary changes.
Sweeney and Bourque say they're not concerned about the possible ban on the burning of construction and demolition debris, since their plants use — or would use — only clean wood chips. But opponents of biomass power argue that as more of the plants are built the supply of forestry waste will be used up and the power plants will move to burn the debris.
Another high-profile local player in biomass is Mount Wachusett Community College. The college uses a biomass plant to provide both heat and electricity at its main campus in Gardner. College President Daniel Asquino said he is happy with the state's decision to study the environmental impacts of biomass.
"I think through the study, education will occur which will indicate that if you have a well-managed forest, if you have biomass plants that are well managed… people will begin to realize this is really a clean renewable form of energy," he said.