Cut the subsidies for biomass energy

Burning trees to produce power is disastrous folly

A WELL-FINANCED, industry-led effort has been insidiously recasting burning trees for energy as a climate solution. Massachusetts residents and ratepayers have overwhelmingly chosen to support clean energy – but greenwashing by this polluting industry threatens to undermine our clean energy policies and squander both our ratepayer dollars and the public trust. Now the Massachusetts Legislature has a narrow window to reject this false narrative and protect the integrity of our clean energy programs.

Despite industry claims that woody biomass energy is “zero-emission,” “carbon neutral,” and “sustainable,” wood-burning facilities emit higher rates of deadly particulate pollution and carbon than coal. Logging for wood as a fuel erodes natural habitats, and depletes our natural carbon capture systems – New England’s forests. As noted author and environmentalist Bill McKibben wrote, “While in theory, forest regrowth would eventually be able to absorb the carbon released from combustion, it would take decades to over a century to achieve parity with fossil fuel emissions – time that we do not have.”

Appropriately sited wind and solar facilities deserve support through our clean energy subsidy programs, but ratepayers don’t have money to burn. With rising fuel prices, it’s more important than ever to ensure that ratepayers’ clean energy dollars are spent wisely. In addition to their climate and health-harming emissions, wood-burning power plants and heating systems have ongoing fuel costs that are passed on to ratepayers, unlike wind and solar (and energy efficiency), for which, after the initial investment, there are only basic maintenance costs, not fuel costs.

Decisive legislative action is urgent because regressive regulations promulgated by the Baker administration’s Department of Energy Resources are now on track to go into effect almost immediately after our state’s legislative session ends. These new rules override strong, science-based standards for Massachusetts’ energy programs grounded in the 2010 Manomet Study. In 2012, guided by that study, Massachusetts issued strong requirements that secured the state’s role nationally as an environmental leader. Weakening these rules threatens Massachusetts’ standing on the global stage.

Due to the advocacy that led to the Manomet study, and remains ongoing, it’s become harder to build biomass plants in Massachusetts, but the Baker administration rule changes would expand incentives for existing biomass plants elsewhere in the region. This means that Massachusetts ratepayers will subsidize out-of-state polluting wood-burning plants and make it harder for Massachusetts to meet our climate goals.

Communities like Springfield know of the air pollution threats from wood-burning power plants to their health and well-being, and have fought vigorously to prevent the siting of new facilities like the proposed Palmer plant. Thankfully, Springfield residents are not alone. Residents in several public power communities have pushed their local utilities to avoid investments in biomass facilities. More than 100 groups across the state have called for an end to biomass subsidies. The message from residents across Massachusetts is clear: not here, not anywhere, and not on my dime.

That is why legislation has been introduced in both the Massachusetts House and Senate to remove subsidies for woody biomass energy once and for all. This is now being considered by a conference committee that was established to reconcile the House and Senate climate bills. By protecting Massachusetts’ focus on truly clean energy solutions, the Legislature can secure our pathway toward a climate-safe future and use our energy dollars to foster technologies that create high-road green jobs. As the impacts of the climate crisis become clearer every day, a greener energy portfolio is critical to weathering the storm and promoting local economic growth.

Subsidizing burning trees for energy is a disastrous folly, not a legitimate “climate policy.” As we await united climate leadership, our Legislature can correct course where the Baker administration has gone off the rails.

Dr. Mary S. Booth is director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, which provides science and legal support so that citizen groups, environmental organizations, and policymakers can better understand energy development impacts on air quality, water quality, ecosystems, and climate. Kathryn R. Eiseman is an advisor to the the Partnership and president of the Pipe Line Awareness Network for the Northeast.