Burning Biomass in Greenfield: How Green Is Green?
By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson
Photo: popinjaykev / flickr
A Cambridge, Massachusetts company wants to build a 47-megawatt biomass-fired power electric generating plant in the Western Massachusetts city of Greenfield. The head of the company says it could bring hundreds of jobs to this job-hungry area during the construction and operation of the plant. In this context, biomass means wood. Wood is a renewable resource, unlike fossil fuels. Jobs are needed here. It’s all good, right? Wrong.
With its population of 18,000, Greenfield – probably the smallest Massachusetts municipality with a city form of government – feels like a big city to me. I’m there two or three times a week; it’s a half hour’s drive from where I live. It has 24 times as many people as my town, two supermarkets, three chain drug stores, a department store, a movie theater, a few ethnically interesting restaurants, a half-dozen banks, a thriving food co-op (of which I am a non-working member), and one big box chain store, BJ’s.
It also has an industrial park, which is where the biomass plant wants to be built.
On a 10-point scale, where 10 means people are so contentious that nobody listens to anyone else, Greenfield rates about a 6. Elections are contested more often than not, but acrimony is not the norm, with some exceptions. Take the matter of Wal-Mart. When the company wanted to build in Greenfield all hell broke loose and the store didn’t get built. There are former friends in Greenfield who still don’t talk to each other, years later.
I don’t think the biomass plant is going to be another Wal-Mart experience, but as soon as you enter Greenfield these days you see lawn signs that say, “Biomass? No thanks.”
Those who argue in favor of the plant point out that biomass is a renewable energy source, that only “slash” – tree materials not suitable as lumber or logs for burning, normally left on the forest floor to rot after a logging operation – will be used to make the wood chips that fire up the plant. They say there’s not enough wind to generate power, nor is there enough sun much of the year. Most of the money spent to acquire the wood chips will stay right here in Franklin County, they say, whereas only a few cents spent on fuel oil stays here.
While some 60 truckloads of wood chips would arrive at the site each day, proponents say the proposed location – just off I-91 – ensures that homes won’t feel the impact of traffic or noise.
Above all, they say, this is green energy. Just what we need to promote oil independence.
Since the issue first arose on The L, the town email list that my husband founded more than 10 years ago, on May 7, 52 messages have been posted, setting an all-time record for a single subject – and we don’t atually have any say in the matter. I haven’t counted the pros and cons, but my impression is that the most environmentally aware among us are not in favor.
There’s been considerable discussion on The L about whether burning biomass is carbon neutral. Trees grow up taking carbon dioxide out of the air. When they are burned, they put it back into the air. Does intake equal output for any given tree? I can’t figure it out from what I’m reading on The L (L stands for List). Someone has made a good case for the need to let slash decompose on the forest floor, to prevent erosion and provide nutrients for new growth.
Someone else came up with figures that suggest the proponents are low-balling what the wood chips will cost. Someone wondered what the energy company will burn if they run out of available chips. And there’s more….
It’s all I can do to absorb the information I must to write the book proposal I’m working on, and I don’t feel required to study the pros and cons of using biomass to generate electricity. My gut says it’s better than burning coal, but I don’t know how much better.
When the subject of biomass first came up in the county, broached by an energy co-op that has done a good job of helping members buy oil at lower cost (no benefit to us, but we were among the earliest members) my husband and I went to an information meeting to raise the question of unintended consequences: If it comes to burning logs commercially (nobody was talking about burning slash back then) won’t that put commercial interests in competition with homeowners already hard pressed to afford firewood. Many of us burn wood in stoves, furnaces, and boilers as our primary heat source. The meeting was made up mainly of loggers. We were listened to politely and weren’t sorry we spoke at the meeting, but I didn’t have the feeling our concerns would have any impact on the outcome.
It seems that many of those opposed to the biomass generating plant also oppose nuclear power (some of us live within the ten mile zone of Vermont Yankee) and the use of coal to generate electricity. Aside from talking about wind and solar energy – neither of which holds much promise in New England – I’m not sure what they favor, or what I should favor, or whether it matters at all what I think. I only know that doing away with electricity is not an option.
The matter is currently before Greenfield’s Zoning Board of Appeals, which is being asked to issue a permit, one of many that will be required. That’s why the signs are blooming on lawns all over Greenfield. Their May 26 hearing and subsequent decision may move the project forward or not, but if the decision goes against the proponents, that will probably be the beginning of a long appeals process.
The plan is to have the plant online in 2013. Any bets?