The Baker administration might be reading the wrong road signs when it comes to implementing good energy policy.
When plans came to light this week to designate wood from felled trees and brush as a form of renewable energy, environmental advocates raised the alarm.
It’s one thing for a company like Mark Richey Woodworking in Newburyport – which has been honored at the Statehouse for its use and advocacy of renewable energy – to burn wood in a company boiler. It feeds a high-efficiency boiler with wood scraps produced at its plant to generate energy.
That is far different from the Baker administration’s proposal that appears to encourage the logging industry to start cutting trees to produce “woody biomass” — chips and pellets made from trunks, branches and sawdust produced in logging.
Baker has embraced good environmental and energy policies in the past. He advocates for the state to use more electricity from hydro-electric dams in Canada.
But opening the door to large-scale burning of tree branches, trunks and wood chips — as well as manufactured pellets produced from sawdust — is problematic. That may help wean electricity customers from natural gas-fired power plants. But this plan and its built-in subsidy for the logging industry can only work with a clear requirement that as many trees be replanted as are removed.
Mary Booth, director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, an advocacy group in the Quabbin Reservoir watershed region, said the state should push for more trees to be planted, not cut and burned, in an effort to balance carbon emissions from burning coal and natural gas, and from automobile exhaust.
“Incentivizing a technology that pumps more carbon into the air isn’t going to reduce emissions,” she told the Boston Globe. “The administration needs to realize that the urgency of addressing climate change increases by the day.”
Proponents of the Baker administration plan say biomass is a form of renewable energy — as long as the trees that are cut are replaced by new trees. In fact, wood lot owners would have an incentive to replace cut trees — so they’ll have a steady, renewable supply of trees to sell.
Charles Thompson, president of the Massachusetts Forest Alliance in Marlborough, told the Globe, “Wood is a local, renewable, economical alternative to fossil fuels, and an important part of a renewable portfolio.”
Opponents say any advantage realized by reduced greenhouse gas emissions will be offset by encouraging more burning of wood products. They also say the state must factor in emissions produced by trucking wood chips and sawdust to out-of-state pellet producers, then trucking them back here to be burned.
Add on the need to enforce tough regulations for large-scale wood-burning plants, and you have a complicated scenario that, at best, is a wash when it comes to the state’s goals to reduce carbon emissions.
Beyond that major point, some opponents warn of the increase in soot levels from burning wood, which can cause heart and lung disease and increase the incidence of asthma. Small-scale wood-burning boilers for heating homes became so popular around Massachusetts almost a decade ago – and created so much smoke and soot – that many communities voted in tough standards requiring high-efficiency boilers and great distances between a person’s boiler and their neighbors.
There are no easy solutions to reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. The looming closure of the Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Plymouth increases the urgency without pointing to a solution on how to affordably and responsibly replace that energy.
If the Baker administration prevails in this plan to encourage tree cutting for energy, regulators must make sure Bay State residents don’t end up with more air pollution, poorly managed forests and a state that goes two steps backward in its quest toward truly green energy solutions.