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?

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16 Responses to “Burning Biomass in Greenfield: How Green Is Green?”

  1. Doing away with electricity is not an option is right. I’m all for green as green can be when possible but when we find ourselves faced with waiting for pie in the sky or settling down with greener than before and so is good enough  for now, I guess I’d be in favor — until something better comes along.

  2. Burning wood is a carcinogen. But it’s better than coal or oil, right? Everything causes cancer. Even the sun.

  3. I hope the state grants approval for the Greenfield biomass plant. Massachusetts is 66% forested and our forests need to be weeded like a garden. By doing timber stand improvement, we can generate the feedstock for fueling biomass plants which I would much rather have than: coal, nuclear, oil or natural gas. The opportunities for biomass conversions at our schools and hospitals are also there. Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, MA heats with wood chips. Go biomass!

  4. Don’t fear the biomass.  You’re correct that New England doesn’t have a whole lot of energy alternatives without similar or worse environmental effects.  Biomass is way, way better than coal and certainly won’t prop up any petro-dictators.  I would embrace biomass as the best of a set of imperfect solutions.

  5. We’ve just installed a biomass plant at Middlebury College. There are caveats to this technology–you should know where the wood is coming from, and how it is harvested, and make sure that the forest will in fact regenerate. And we have to make sure we don’t deforest New England once more. But done wisely, a key part of the puzzle for our region. Check out the McNeil Generating Station in Burlington, which has been doing it on a pretty big volume for more than a quarter century–and a hundred yards from the Intervale Farms, which is probably the best local/urban agriculture operation in the country

  6. Miryam,

    Thanks for your article.

    If we were to use all of our harvestable biomass resources for energy in the Northeast, it wouldn’t make much of a dent in meeting our energy needs, even with the 50% reduction in energy use we’re working for now. 

    We need to get the maximum benefit from the wood we do harvest.   Many people heat with wood in our county, including many people with very limited resources.  Those heating systems make use of 60-87% of the wood’s energy value.   Small heating plants (like the ones at Mount Wachusetts Community College and Cooley Dickinson Hospital) use 85-87% of the wood’s energy value.  These small locally controlled uses of biomass make sense.

    The Madera plant will take one quarter of the harvestable wood in Massachusetts and make use of less than 30% of that wood’s energy value.  The rest will be discarded as waste heat.   Even if Matt Wolf is able to build vast greenhouses to use the waste heat and to provide heat for the whole town of Greenfield through a district heating system, he may get up to 50% efficiency. 

    I don’t think we have enough indigenous energy resources to build a plant that will waste that much energy for the next 20 years.   We’d love to see Madera work with local communities to build small heat or heat and power plants instead.   We do need the jobs AND we need affordable wood for our homes AND we need to be good stewards of our natural resources.

    Lynn Benander
    Manager, Co-op Power (http://www.cooppower.coop)

  7. Please don’t fall for the Greenfield Biomass Scam.  Burlington’s McNeil Station is not a speculative venture like the Greenfield proposal but is owned by the city.  Even so, it  has had its share of problems (do a Google video search on “Biomess” and hear what the ladies next door say).  Come to the May 26, 2009 7:00pm ZBA meeting at the the Greenfield Middle School and be prepaired to talk about this plan that would put vastly increased amounts of particulates, CO2 and volatile organic compounds into the already compromised air air of Franklin County’s most densely populated area (Friday 5/22 was an official ground-level ozone alert).
    On a more personal level, would any of the proponents of the idea of biomass burning care to buy one the abutters’ houses on Adams Road or Factory Hollow? 

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  10. I thought burning dead wood (carbon capture) would release just as much c02 into the atmosphere as coal fired power stations. The only difference is that timber is renewable.

  11. #Daniel, I don’t think emissions from burning wood are equivalent to burning coal, but I’m not sure. I’ll do more research and blog about this soon.

    But the renewable part is something of a crock. It takes 40 years to grow a tree big enough to provide a credible amount of energy on burning.

    And a major argument in the part of the world where I live (Western Massachusetts, USA, where two large tree burners are being argued about) it wouldn’t take long before standing trees in huge numbers — as opposed to downed wood, which is what the proponents are promising to confine themselves to — would be required to protect the proposing company’s investment.

    Come back in a couple of weeks. I’ll try to answer questions about CO2 comparison and particulate matter emissions.

  12. So, here I am close to signing on a great little house, our first home, from a good friend. The value has been dropping in recent years of course, but we’re getting a deal that reflects that. And now I realize it’s about one mile from this proposed plant. Ugh! I think I could live with five miles, but one? Who would choose that?

  13. Given the regulations Massachusetts is placing on biomass plants, I very much doubt the plant will be built. The one planned for Springfield just went down the drain.

    This is not meant to advise you. Lawsuits going in both directions are almost a given, and who knows how the courts will rule? I expect it will be years before the issue is decided and the mere uncertainty is murder on the house’s resale value.

    You might be able to buy now at a low price and, if the project goes down in flames (forgive me) sell at a neat profit. Or not. You have my sympathy. This is tough.

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