The best way to use our ‘available’ wood

It’s good for heat, not electricity generation

MASSACHUSETTS GENERATES a lot of wood. Sturbridge, for example, spent more than $300,000 removing trees killed by drought and gypsy moths. Utilities, local and state governments, and private contractors chop down lots of trees for safety and environmental reasons. Industries also produce clean wood residue from manufacturing and crating.  It all adds up to millions of tons of clean, virgin wood residue annually serving no useful purpose.

Once a tree is cut, it releases the same amount of carbon into the atmosphere when it biodegrades as when it is burned.  If that’s the case, why not burn it to displace fossil fuel carbon emissions?

A ton of green wood will produce the same amount of heat as $140 worth of fuel oil at $2.10 a gallon. That means a million tons of available wood could annually displace $140 million worth of imported oil.

The best way to use this available wood is for local heat production in homes or businesses. Since this wood production is ubiquitous across the state, we have an opportunity to develop local wood fuel supply chains connecting wood with local heat demand. That keeps energy dollars in local communities to stimulate local economies and create jobs.

Instead, the Baker administration has proposed lowering the required efficiency standards on new centralized wood-fired electric generating stations to create markets for this abundant resource.  Developers of the proposed Palmer Renewable Energy wood generating station claim they can deliver 40-plus semi-truck loads of green wood residue a day to this plant without cutting any additional trees, and this supply is from just a fraction of the tree removal service areas in Massachusetts.

This market demand, at any price, is certainly an attractive offer to the municipalities, state agencies, and private companies generating this residue. However, the proposed Palmer plant will only convert 29 percent of the wood’s energy into useful energy so it’s a poor use of wood’s carbon. In addition, wood generating stations are paying less than $25 a ton for green wood, which is well below its $140 heat value.

Environmental groups that oppose any wood burning point to the Manomet study, which concluded that burning wood to produce electricity is worse for the environment than burning coal.  But the carbon accounting behind this conclusion focused on wood cut for electric generation, and not heating with available wood residue, which makes up Massachusetts’ current potential wood fuel supply.

While we strive for zero carbon emission energy production, we have an opportunity to minimize carbon investment in transportation and maximize fossil fuel carbon displacement by using this resource locally for heat.  We simply need to rethink how we handle wood locally and get creative about connecting available wood with local heat demand.

Meet the Author

Charlie Cary

Principal, Biomass Combustion Systems
The Emerald Ash Bore will kill most of the ash trees in Massachusetts in the near future, adding millions more tons of available wood. The focus on large-scale electric generating facilities to use this valuable resource only distracts us from finding more environmentally sound and financially beneficial uses for this locally available resource.

Charlie Cary spent 35 years in the industrial wood energy business, including 20 years owning and operating Biomass Combustion Systems Inc. Almost all companies purchasing his company’s equipment used their own wood residue for heat production.