THE PALMER RENEWABLE Energy biomass plant in Springfield will generate 42 megawatts of firm, clean green power. We have stayed silent during the on-going debate about our project in the hope that the multiyear permitting process and seven years of unsuccessful litigation and appeals to that permit would speak for us. Unfortunately, the ongoing public misinformation about biomass and criticism of our municipal light department partners compels us to respond.
First, some facts: Every electric company must maintain its power lines by clearing tree limbs away that could break and take a line down in a storm. This is not a small effort. Where does the tree-trimming waste go after it is cut? In Massachusetts, wood debris is barred from landfills, so in most circumstances the tree-trimmers chip the limbs and blow them into the surrounding forest. Those wood chips on the forest floor decompose primarily to methane that is released as a greenhouse gas 25 times more destructive to our atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
This simple science is the reason that the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources’ study of the use of waste wood for power production, just released on December 4, 2020, concluded, “using this waste wood material for power generation saves 50 percent of greenhouse gas emissions over a 20-year life cycle, compared to allowing it to decompose to methane on the ground.” This does not even include the greenhouse gas emissions that are reduced by using biomass as an offset to fossil fuel electric generation.
Our project in Springfield will be fueled with wood waste. Unfortunately, our project has been caught up in the groundswell of opposition to other biomass projects that proposed to use forest-derived green wood chips as fuel, which have a very different emissions profile. Opponents have ignored this science and failed to make any distinction whatsoever between these two very different fuel sources.
We have also heard it said that our project will negatively impact public health in the city of Springfield. Again, the facts and science say otherwise. As part of a rigorous public vetting and permitting process, we went well beyond any legal requirements to provide a very detailed public health risk assessment, with input from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Not only did we evaluate health impacts to the general population, we also explored the possible impacts to local schools including asthma incidence. These studies revealed no significant air quality and public health impacts for the project. As the air permit issued by Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection plainly states, “the facility will not adversely affect public health.”
The reasons for this are clear: our project’s very stringent air pollution and emissions controls, state of the art technology, and the most stringent air plan approval for a biomass plant anywhere in the United States. In addition, the project’s contribution of local jobs and taxes will actually improve economic conditions in the city and likely offset much, if not all, of its very slight air quality impacts.
An environmental justice analysis, completed during the project’s environmental impact review under the Patrick administration, reaffirmed this analysis and found that our project “must meet every applicable air permitting standard and is required to avoid, minimize, and mitigate environmental impacts to the maximum extent feasible. As set forth further herein, after reviewing the project impacts and the mitigation proposed, I believe the project meets this high standard . . .”
In the years since these decisions were rendered, air quality in Springfield has actually dramatically improved, making such concerns even less tenable.
For seven years, project opponents sought to challenge these findings. They first appealed the permit via the administrative hearing process at the Department of Environmental Protection on the basis of the health status of the city of Springfield, air impacts of plant emissions, and climate change.
After reviewing the parties’ extensive briefs, including multiple expert witnesses on both sides, the hearing officer ruled decisively in favor of the project. This decision was affirmed by the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection.
Not content with those two decisive findings, project opponents appealed to Superior Court, raising these same arguments. There again, the attorney general’s office successfully defended the DEP permit decision on the grounds that the project met all applicable air quality and health standards.
We are hopeful those who have been so vocally opposed to our project will take the time to read and understand the facts and science and come to the same conclusion as every regulatory and judicial body that has reviewed our project: namely that this waste wood biomass facility will reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, lower carbon emissions using local resources, and do so in a way that does not pose a threat to public health.
Vic Gatto is the chief operating officer of Palmer Renewable Energy.