Matera: Clean energy does not come out of a smokestack

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Chris Matera, a civil engineer and founder of Massachusetts Forest Watch, a forest preservation advocacy group.

As Vermont considers the recently released Comprehensive Energy Plan and the draft air permit just given to a large proposed tree-fueled power plant in Fair Haven, it is urgent that citizens take a close look at just what is being proposed for Vermont’s energy and environmental future because most Vermonters have no idea what policies are rapidly being cemented in place without much public debate or consultation.

Looking at the proposed Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan, one quickly notices how adept we humans are at speaking sincerely, in perfect contradiction, out of both sides of our mouth. The plan frets about high carbon emissions that cause global warming (as the floods rage) but then proposes policies and taxpayer subsidies to incentivize tree-burning “biomass” energy which has the highest carbon footprint of all.

Meanwhile, too many so-called “green” groups sit by silently, or even cheerlead, while these plans quickly move forward that would drastically increase cutting and burning of Vermont’s golden goose forests, for tiny amounts of energy.

Most people know that we need to protect forests to absorb carbon dioxide, clean our air and water, provide flood control, shelter wildlife and provide the beauty that brings higher quality of life and tourist dollars to New England . So how did increased cutting and burning of forests (called “deforestation” and “pollution” when it occurs in other countries) get re-branded as “green” energy, particularly considering that burning wood is one of the dirtiest forms of energy that exists?

In addition to the strong influence of vested interests, the serious negative impacts from tree-fueled biomass energy are often glossed over when promoted under the “local” banner, which seems to raise blinders to looking at what local activity is being sold. Vermont Yankee is “local” and coal is local to West Virginians, so just because something is local doesn’t automatically mean it is good. (I do not support either of the above)

The latest science states the inconvenient truth that tree-fueled biomass electric facilities like the one proposed in Fair Haven are 50 percent worse than coal and 300 percent worse than natural gas for carbon emissions, worse than fossil fuels for most conventional air pollutants including particulates (even with modern air pollution controls and accounting for new tree growth), and will significantly increase forest ecosystem and wildlife impacts on already stressed forests.

Even more efficient combined heat and power (CHP) biomass facilities, which some consider “less bad” than biomass electric production, still emit carbon dioxide at a rate 24 percent higher than oil and 97 percent higher than natural gas. Also, the air pollution profile in CHP biomass is worse than even oil, so think hard the next time you hear it promoted as “good” for the climate, or “good” for heating hospitals and schools with their at-risk populations. New England already has the highest asthma rates in the nation.

Producing tiny amounts of new biomass energy in New England would require drastic increases in cutting and burning of living, green trees. According to the Vermont Biomass Energy Working Group (which is mostly stacked with biomass vested interests), it would require one million additional tons of cutting (a 62 percent increase in logging of Vermont ’s forests) to provide just 1 to 2 percent of Vermont ’s heat and electric. Think about that the next time you recycle a “post-it” note to save trees.

Frighteningly, the recently released draft Comprehensive Energy Plan proposes getting 25 percent of Vermont’s energy from bio-energy (fueled largely by forests) by 2025, which would mean a drastic increase in forest cutting and carbon emissions, the exact opposite of what we need at this time. Additionally, New England’s forests are threatened by serious efforts to export wood pellets to Europe .

Nobody is saying “don’t ever cut a tree” or “don’t use your home woodstove” (although it is helpful to use cleaner, more efficient models). The intention here is to avoid increasing the cutting and burning of our critical forests. According to the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies, Vermont is already cutting 67 percent of its annual forest growth, and if inaccessible areas like steep slopes are taken into consideration, Vermont is already cutting about all of its available growth.

We have big energy and environmental challenges, but wishful and delusional thinking, such as burning forests is “green” just because it is “local,” is no better than West Virginians who want the money provided by dirty energy from their “local” resource. We can and must do much better than burning down the house (our forests) to keep warm for a night.

We are lucky to have our world renowned, golden-goose forests again in New England. They were almost gone 80 years ago, and could go again. We do not the need additional pollution and tiny amounts of energy available from cutting, burning and belching them up dirty smokestacks, but we do need to protect our forests if they are to continue attracting tourist dollars, sheltering wildlife and cleaning up the mess we have already made of our air, water and atmosphere.

Local solar, geothermal, (appropriately scaled and located) wind and hydro energy, along with conservation and efficiency can drastically clean up our energy supply and help save our environment without destroying it. This is where we need to be putting our energy….so to speak.

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  • Alex Barnham

    1. Exactly what model of tree-fueled power plant in Fair Haven is being proposed?
    2. What are the emissions for that model?
    3. Is the proposed tree-fueled power plant in Fair Haven including cogenerative utilization of waste heat and will that waste heat be included in the carbon footprint scenario?
    4. Does the tree-fueled power plant in Fair Haven utilize waste wood and other wood by-products?
    5. Is the Vermont forestry industry doing a good job managing the forests and conserving resources?
    6. Are Vermont forests managed to prevent large forest fires by establishing fire lines?
    7. Do we really know enough about forest management to do a good job promoting new growth and utilizing composting programs?
    9. Does Vermont have a good electricity conservation education program?
    10. Are we able to convert many wasteful electric generator plants to utilize the waste heat thereby reducing their carbon footprint?
    11. Are there areas where more small hydropower plants may be installed to take up the slack of wind and solar energy gaps instead of relying upon gas-fired backup?
    12. Is there an energy Czar that can bring much-needed integrity to this much needed energy?
    13. Will these and many more questions ever be answered in my lifetime?

  • Doug Hoffer

    Mr. Matera said, “We can and must do much better than burning down the house (our forests) to keep warm for a night.”

    This type of gross exaggeration is what makes the argument so much less compelling.

  • Elinor Osborn

    I’ve heard few facts about biomass so this information from someone knowledgable about forests is most welcome. I want to emphasize Mr. Matera’s point that wind is good when “appropriately scaled and located.” Here in the Northeast Kingdom we have found out that industrial wind on our ridegelines has many bad environmental consequences. Located in windswept, already developed open areas, and out of bird and bat migration routes industrial wind may be beneficial. And local individual wind turbines are definitely beneficial.

  • Mr. Matera is exactly right regarding using trees for generating energy.

    The overall energy efficiency of the process to harvest the tree, bring it to the plant, cut it up in chips and then burn it and dispose of the ash to produce a kWh to the grid is less than 20%.

    The National Park Service recommends that no more than 0.5 cords of wood/yr be harvested from an acre of HEALTHY forest to maintain a healthy forest which needs the wood to maintain itself.

    Statements by forest harvesting proponents about there being more biomass now than before are irrelevant nonsense.

    The forests of Vermont are in poor physical shape mainly due to acid rain from out of state. They need to be left alone as much as possible to heal themselves while acid rain is being reduced.

  • Dave Bellini

    Every conceivable source of energy has a protest group to go with it. When we burned coal, people wanted nuclear, it was the future and was going to solve all problems. Nuclear power plants were built and people in Volvo 240D station wagons got into the “split wood not atoms” movement. They wanted to “git back to nature”. Well, if you burn wood it makes smoke, so that’s no good. How about wind? Sure, it doesn’t burn anything, THAT is the answer. But. . . . that will ruin the view and destroy the delicate mountain top flora. So, wind is no good. Solar, of course! THAT must be the answer, how could solar possibly offend anyone? Just try building a solar farm, people will pop up like gophers and be offended by the ugly solar farms. Solar farms would likely ruin some plant or bug habitat and a protest group would form in opposition. So what’s the latest politically correct form of power? “Local solar?” It might work if you move closer to the sun.

  • Paul Hannan

    • Trees don’t live forever
    • Trees sequester carbon only while they are living
    • When they die and rot they release all that stored carbon.
    • If they get cut down and burned they release exactly the same amount of carbon as if they died and rotted.
    • Vigorous, healthy, growing forests sequester more carbon than mature, slow growing forests.
    • Large old growth trees can emit more carbon than they sequester because they can rot from the inside faster than they add wood (carbon) to the outside.
    • A principal goal of selective forest management is to produce “room to grow but none to waste” in the residual stand.
    • A good growing site can add a cord of wood per acre per year in New England. A conservative yield could be a half cord per acre per year. Within limits, the site will add that same amount of wood regardless of the average size of the stems at proper stocking levels.
    • Careful harvesting of anything less than the growing capacity of a forest avoids timber “mining” and can generate a net increase in sequestered carbon…up to a point. The “point” being the when forest vigor slows and decay exceeds growth.
    • Therefore, carbon sequestered in forests is at best temporarily sequestered. Carbon sequestered in coal is going nowhere unless it is mined and burned.
    • It is meaningless, disingenuous and totally misleading to compare emissions from releasing carbon in trees burned with releasing carbon in coal burned.

  • Don Eggleston

    The Vermont solution: Build Absolutely Nothing That Will Generate Power, Anywhere. Vermonters as a whole are a bunch of selfish NIMBYist pigs.