Baker is wrong to subsidize wood burning

4 scientists say using wood to generate electricity will worsen climate change

GOVS. CHARLIE BAKER of Massachusetts and Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan were featured US officials at the fifth anniversary celebration of the Paris Climate Agreement. Their presence demonstrated that state leaders, from both political parties, are actively battling the climate emergency.

It is therefore baffling that the Baker administration just released new regulations that directly undermine the governor’sand Legislature’s goal to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The regulations allow wood-burning electric power plants that currently fail to meet Massachusetts’ environmental standards to receive subsidies from ratepayers. But burning wood to generate heat or electricity is unnecessary, will increase carbon emissions, and worsen climate change.

By removing trees from our forests, the proposed regulations also reduce the ability of our forests to remove carbon from the atmosphere. This undermines the governor’s net zero emissions plan that relies on our forests to soak up carbon emitted by any fossil fuels we still use in 2050.  As Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides has noted, “The conservation of the Commonwealth’s forests is critical to meet our ambitious target of net zero emissions by 2050.”

The Department of Energy Resources justifies weakening the existing standards by falsely arguing that burning wood instead of natural gas will reduce carbon emissions.  Wood burning releases more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than any fossil fuel – 75 percent more than natural gas. Therefore, generating heat or electricity with wood immediately increases greenhouse gas emissions more than fossil fuels, worsening climate change.

Eventually, regrowth might remove enough carbon to equal the additional carbon emitted when the wood is burned. But regrowth takes time. New England forests take upwards of a century or more for additional growth to capture enough carbon to breakeven with fossil fuels. Break-even times are far longer for wood bioenergy compared to wind and solar, even after counting  the emissions from making and installing the turbines and panels.

Trees harvested for bioenergy may not grow back. Forest land may be converted to other uses. Wildfire, insect damage, disease, and extreme weather may limit regrowth. Even if forests eventually remove the previously emitted carbon, the extra carbon in the atmosphere until removed accelerates global warming. Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets then melt faster, sea level rises higher, wildfires become more likely, and storms intensify more than if wood had not been burned. Eventual full forest recovery will not replace lost ice, lower sea level, undo climate disasters, or bring back homes lost to floods or wildfires.

Net zero is insufficient. To achieve a safer climate, we must reduce our carbon and other heat-trapping emissions as rapidly as possible and our forests must remove more carbon from the atmosphere than they do now by allowing more of them to continue growing. Burning more of our forests for energy undercuts both goals.

Burning wood for electricity also threatens our health by increasing air pollution, which is particularly harmful to children and adults with asthma and other respiratory and cardiac conditions, including those with lung damage from COVID-19. It primarily affects the poor and communities of color where wood burning plants are often located.  The American Lung Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and other leading public health groups “oppose policies that would encourage or expand the use of biomass for electricity production.”

Wood-fired electricity is unnecessary and more expensive than wind or solar, and these clean energy technologies, and energy efficiency, are already cheaper than fossil fuels in many places. A new study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found energy efficiency is cheaper than using natural gas to produce power. With today’s proven technologies—solar and wind, air- and ground-source heat pumps, smart grids, energy storage, net-zero and passive buildings—we can stay warm in winter, cool in summer, keep the lights on, and power our economy without burning fossil fuels or our forests.

Investments in energy efficiency and clean energy generate “co-benefits” by creating jobs and improving health and economic welfare throughout the Commonwealth, especially among low-income and historically disadvantaged communities.

Meet the Author

William Moomaw

Professor emeritus of international environmental policy, Tufts University
Meet the Author

John Sterman

Professor/Co-director, Sloan School of Management at MIT/MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative
Meet the Author

Juliette Rooney-Varga

Professor and director of the climate change initiative, University of Massachusetts Lowell
Meet the Author

Richard Birdsey

Senior scientist, Woodwell Climate Research Center, Falmouth
Under the Baker administration’s proposed regulations, utilities will be charging electricity users – all of us – to burn more of our forests, worsen climate change, harm our health, and erode social justice. We urge Baker to preserve his reputation as a champion for climate, health, and justice by withdrawing these flawed regulations. The legislature should also eliminate wood bioenergy from the energy sources eligible for subsidies in the climate legislation they are now considering, and support climate-friendly energy instead.

William Moomaw is professor emeritus of Tufts University, John Sterman is a professor at the Sloan School of Management at MIT and co-director of the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative, Juliette Rooney Varga is a professor and director of the climate change initiative at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and Richard Birdsey is a senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Falmouth.