Biomass report draws ire of foresters and environmentalists

MONTPELIER – The final draft of a report to the Legislature on the use of woody biomass in the state of Vermont won praise, vehement condemnation and everything in between Tuesday night.

A 15-member panel established by the 2009 Legislature met 27 times over three years to develop 45 recommendations and a lengthy and in-depth report on the benefits and risks of using woody biomass — pellets and wood chips harvested from low-grade wood, blowdowns and logging residues such as tree tops. It also tackled the issue of what standards, guidelines and actions the state should take.

The key recommendations include:

• Use of biomass resources for the most energy efficient applications, such as heat generation
• Long- and short-term monitoring of harvesting and forest health;
• The creation of markets for low-grade wood equally around the state; and
• Promotion of energy efficient home heating with wood.

The wide-ranging draft was aired publicly on Tuesday at the Statehouse before about 30 people and it drew a broad variety of opinions.

No one was more outspoken in his critique of the report than Jonathan Wood, a former member of the panel who served as Secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources under the administration of Republican Gov. James Douglas.

Speaking in unusually harsh terms, Wood called the draft everything from “disingenuous” to “disgraceful” and even seemed to imply he would take legal action if his name was not taken off the report, so strongly was he opposed to it.

“I am concerned about my name being on this report. I want a disclaimer,” he said, then added, “I will take whatever action I have to.

“I think this is the worst thing that has happened to forest management in a long time,” Wood said.

The outburst drew a tart response after the meeting from longtime Sen. Virginia Lyons, D- Williston, co-chairwoman of the panel and chairwoman of the Natural Resources and Energy Committee in the Senate. Lyons accused Wood of being “disingenuous” in his criticism and essentially said politics was in play, since Wood lost his post as head of ANR with the election of Democrat Peter Shumlin.

Some of Wood’s criticisms were echoed by others. Critics said the “voluntary” guidelines in the report amounted to de facto mandatory rules that could harm an already stressed wood harvesting industry and put the state at a disadvantage with other New England states that don’t have such rules.

Others like forest consultant Steve Hardy of Brattleboro called some of the proposed biomass harvesting guidelines “well intentioned” but arcane and unworkable in the reality of the forests. He pointed out ambiguities in the draft plan about how much low-grade wood should be removed from any given tract.

“How are we going to do this on the ground? It’s an interesting concept but how do you implement it?” he said.

He also cautioned Vermont would be put “at a disadvantage” by stricter guidelines than other states, noting wood chips are shipped across state borders and suppliers can get them anywhere.

“What are you going to do, put guards at the border?” he asked.

Wood made the same point, saying Vermont “is not an island.” The report, in his view, would result in “a great deal of additional regulation,” land fragmentation and discouragement of the biomass industry. He also criticized the three-week comment period as disgracefully short.

Lyons, however, said the draft report is the starting process, not the end, and everyone will have a chance to weigh in the Legislature. “Once the report is complete, it is just a report. It has no teeth,” she said.

While some specifics of the draft drew fire, many of those who testified said use of wood biomass was essential to Vermont forest health and jobs in the wood industry.

“Biomass harvesting is really the best thing since white bread,” said consulting forester Robbo Holleran of Chester.

Holleran said the report’s middle-range estimate of 900,000 tons of green surplus low-grade wood for biomass is grossly underestimated and should be as high as 5 million green tons. Higher biomass use would improve the poor market for low-grade wood and foster higher-quality wood growth on the state’s 4.5 million acres of forest, he said.

Existing biomass supplies could support many biomass uses for a long time, according to Holleran. He cautioned against installing too many rules and regulations on biomass harvesting.

“It has to be profitable for people to be able to do it. It’s very capital intensive,” he said.

Some environmental groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity, the Partnership for Policy Integrity and the Vermont Sierra Club raised concerns about the impacts of biomass generating plants on air quality and carbon emissions and urged more study. They also said that until more is known about biomass demand and the amount of the resource, there should be a moratorium on any large utility scale biomass generating plants in the state.

Mollie Matteson of the Center for Biological Diversity said Vermont already has the “highest asthma rates in the country” and new biomass generation plants would hurt air quality and push the limits of sustainable harvesting of Vermont’s forests.

The 800-pound biomass gorilla in the elegant Statehouse Chamber was a controversial proposal by Beaverwood Energy for a 29 megawatt electrical biomass generation plant in Fair Haven that would be coupled with a wood pellet manufacturing facility. The proposal, which would create 50 jobs, drew both praise for providing a badly needed market in southern Vermont for low-grade wood and criticism since electrical generation is the least efficient use of biomass chips.

The draft report doesn’t address the Beaverwood proposal.

Sen. Lyons pointed out in an interview afterwards that the plant is already in the permitting process before the Vermont Public Service Board and wasn’t proposed when the panel was given its charge by the Legislature.

Several speakers, however, addressed one of the key issues in the biomass draft relating to Beaverwood, which is whether the state should endorse inefficient use of biomass for purposes such as electrical generation.

Barry Bernstein of East Calais, who has a long involvement in selling and promoting biomass heating systems for schools in the state, cited figures that biomass in heating is 80 percent efficient, while electrical generation is only 15 percent to 25 percent efficient. He cautioned that the state place a premium on thermal uses over power generation.

Beaverwood is projected to use 500,000 tons a year of biomass and has said it will achieve 50 percent efficiency, partly by using heat to dry the wood pellets produced at the plant. Two other biomass facilities currently are on line in the state, in Ryegate and Burlington.

Tim Maker, also of Calais and a biomass energy expert, agreed with Bernstein. With oil supplies declining, Vermont’s forests will face “unprecedented pressure” in the future and biomass should be reserved for the highest efficiency purpose. He urged raising the draft proposal’s minimum 50 percent efficiency level for biomass plants

Maker disagreed with Wood. In his view, more regulation is needed.

“Let the chips fall where they may, no pun intended,” he said.

“We can’t let the wood resource go to the highest bidder,” he said.

Phil Stannard, a forest management consultant from southern Vermont, said he was a strong supporter of biomass use, whether for generation or wood pellets. “There’s a vast surplus of bad wood, vastly undermanaged and poorly managed forests,” he said.

While Stannard and others argued there was a big surplus and the state needed more markets for low-grade wood, Ann Ingerson of the Wilderness Society said Vermont should cautiously allocate its biomass supplies. She also urged the panel to boost monitoring, look at air quality issues more fully and agreed for the need to stand firm on efficiency standards.

Josh Schlossberg, a biomass energy opponent, raised an issue not mentioned in the report, that invasive species such as the emerald ash borer can be transported live with woodchips.

In comments made in a letter, the Vermont Woodlands Association said invasive subdivisions and parcelization of Vermont forests are far worse threats. Sam Miller, a VWA member, said “judicious” use of biomass is not a great threat and could be a good management tool. The association said the report didn’t focus enough on improving the residential firewood market and small stove and furnace efficiency.

One thing that was clear from the extensive comments is that there is plenty of divergence of opinion on biomass from all the stakeholders in the state, as well as general agreement on its potential — if not its eventual best uses.

Greg Chase, a consulting forester from Hartland, urged the panel to have a little patience and let the process of coming up with guidelines on the whole new arena of biomass run its course.

“There’s been lots of changes in the 200 years that we’ve been here. This (biomass) is just a 20-year phenomenon,” he said.

If you read us, please support us.

Comment Policy requires that all commenters identify themselves by their authentic first and last names. Initials, pseudonyms or screen names are not permissible.

No personal harrassment, abuse, or hate speech is permitted. Comments should be 1000 characters or fewer.

We moderate every comment. Please go to our FAQ for the full policy.

Andrew Nemethy

Recent Stories

Thanks for reporting an error with the story, "Biomass report draws ire of foresters and environmentalists"
  • Cathy Baiton

    I’m concerned about the recommendations of continued use of biomass for energy, and of wood for home heating use. These recommendations seem to avoid the whole issue of how biomass/wood burning emissions impact the air and public health. The American Lung Association’s official policy statement on biomass advocates recognizing the need to move away from these sources of heat production, and recommends that people avoid burning wood, wherever cleaner alternatives are available; the ALA also points out that”the right to breathe clean air is primary.”

  • David Usher

    Let me see if I have all this this right.

    Biomass, at best, has a controversial, perhaps not even a viable future as a source of electricity (and heating) generation. Another story on Digger suggests that a natural gas plant would be an uphill battle with serious opposition. Vermont Yankee may be closed, yet we buy nuclear generated electricity from NH.

    Industrial scale wind is intermittent, unreliable, controversial and expensive. Solar installation are sprouting but have very low efficiency and produce a tiny amount of high cost electricity.

    The good news is that Quebec is selling us reasonably priced hydroelectricity. Meanwhile, a Canadian company will soon own the lion’s share of the new smart electrical grid.

    Now we have a strong push from the Feds for plug-in electric vehicles.

    Despite serious conservation and efficiency efforts, the demand for electricity will steadily grow.

    In all this, the only certainty I see for Vermont’s electrical energy future is higher cost for consumers and a great deal of squabbling about how to generate it.

    The DPS in its Energy Plan would do well to inform us what those costs will likely be. Does it?

  • Craig Kneeland

    The efficiency figures quoted for heating vs electricity generation are very misleading. It is obviously more efficient to generate electricity, and then use the heat byproduct from electrical generation to provide heat. The trucking of waste products, be it wood or landfill garbage, should not be encouraged on our poorly maintained highway system, which was not designed for the large trucks. Transportation inefficiencies should be considered in all cases. Burning wood for heat alone makes no more environmental sense than burning ethanol in our cars.

  • Robbo Holleran

    This is a good report of what happened at the meeting. I want to offer one slight correction on my quote. I said “sliced bread”, not “white bread”.

    Of the few comments which were vigorously opposed to biomass, I think the same folks tend to be against coal, oil, gas, nuclear, and commercial scale hydro, wind or solar power. These folks are not offering any solution, and biomass is clearly part of the solution, esp since the biomass is a byproduct of good forest management.

    Biomass prices are low enough that it is not economically viable to remove good growing stock, or higher value products, and run them through the chipper. I have no problem with them going to the highest bidder, and there is no risk that biomass will become scarce, as long as we can keep forests as actively managed forestland.

    Currently, about 40-50% of the trees in Vermont are “unacceptable growing stock”, not capable of growing into higher value products. These are only suitable for pulp or fuel use. And since crowding is the largest problem affecting tree health in Vermont, removing these trees is part of the key to good forest management. Current markets for pulp, fulewood, chips or pellets is not adequate to keep up with growth.

    And with 20-30 tons per acre of “weed trees” already in the forest, there are over 100 million tons available without counting the annual growth. That would supply a large plant like the Beaverwood proposal for 200 years.

    • Townsend Peters

      “I think the same folks tend to be against coal, oil, gas, nuclear, and commercial scale hydro, wind or solar power.”

      Evidence, Mr. Holleran? Did any of them actually say so?

  • Fiske Sterling

    Those in favor of logging as much as possible in Vermont are absolutely right: a forest is no different than a crop of corn. If you don’t intensively manage a cornfield with heavy machinery, it can’t provide buttery corn cobs for the family. Similarly, a forest cannot grow trees properly without human intervention.

    The first forests that emerged in Vermont when the glaciers receded 10,000 years ago had a hard time of it, until humans came around. Only then, with the help of axes and eventually chainsaws, could the forest prosper.

    The lesson to take away from the whole forest biomass thing is that, when it comes down to it, nature has no idea what it’s doing.

    • Kelly Stettner

      Well-said, Fiske! I always thought a healthy forest had an understory. When trees fall of their own volition (it does happen, whether anyone is there to hear it or not), the decaying matter actually *gasp* FEEDS the soil, thereby making successive generations of trees healthy. Amazing how that happens.

      Personally, I’m all for responsible forest “management,” but biomass is inefficient for producing electricity. Despite the pigeon-hole Mr. Holleran seems to want to wedge me into, I’m also all for responsible nuclear energy as well as large-scale hydro. The wind and solar options might suffice on an individual scale, but their inefficiencies and intermittent natures will always require a backup system. Natural gas would be a good option, and I’d like to see VT explore geothermal options, as well. Mr. Holleran, it’d be nice to see you step back from painting everyone who opposes biomass with such a broad brush.

  • It is very good that this report has stirred a debate on how woody bio-mass is to be managed. At present, the cost of bio-mass generated electricity runs over 14 cents per kilowatt-hour. While not the most expensive of the renewables fuels, it is more expensive than what we are what we are looking at in terms of the electricity cost of Vermont’s industrial wind projects.

    The estimate of 900,000 tons per year is a good (and conservative) one, assuming that it requires 10,000 acres of forest to sustainably produce a ton of wood. While Vermont has 4.9 million acres of forest, only 20% is reasonable accessible, with the rest being tied up in small, privately held parcels. It will require a committed effort to free up and effectively use additional forest resources.

    It is important and healthy that we have the straight talk and serious debate about our energy choices. That straight talk needs to include cost and capacity so lawmakers and voters can make informed decisions.

    The road to a high level of renewables will not be an easy one. A well informed public discussion is necessary if we are committed to achieving success.

  • Vermont has about 5 million acres of forested land. The average sustainable yield per year per acre of forest is at least 1/2 cord, sometimes 1 cord per acre, meaning that’s how much new growth happens per year and we can harvest that much WITHOUT the forest shrinking.

    That means Vt could SUSTAINABLY harvest more than 3 million cords of firewood per year, which is more than twice the amount we’d need to HEAT EVERY BUILDING in the state with this renewable, geologically-carbon-free resource, while KEEPING OVER $1 BILLION IN OUR LOCAL ECONOMY THAT IS CURRENTLY GOING TO IMPORTED FUEL-OIL AND PROPANE.

    Plus anyone who switches from fuel-oil to wood will instantly cut their winter-heating costs IN HALF while creating local jobs in forest-management/processing.

    As to those who fear a wood-heated Vt would have poor air-quality, you need to learn some things about the clean-burning efficiency of modern wood-stoves that are 80-90% efficient. A good wood-stove puts out LESS particulate and emissions than an oil-furnace, and NO geologic-carbon.

    Wake up people. Vermont is NOT overpopulated. We CAN feed ourselves, We have more than 5 acres of farmland per household, twice the land needed to grow 100% of our own food (if we transition away from milk for export and toward local food-reliance).

    And we CAN heat our own homes and buildings with local sustainable resources.

    Get real people.

  • luke curtis

    So far I think only one of these comments has mentioned the glaciers. Our Vermont soils are relatively new. Since a forest is no better than its soil, “sustainable” harvesting has to account for the depletion of potential rotting material through removal of high and low value timber alike.

    Net soil production needs to stay in, or close to, positive territory, doesn’t it?

  • Good point Luke. We do have options in terms of using forest biomass to create soil, while capturing energy. Check out Vt-based which is a partner of Highfields Center for Composting in Hardwick.

    We have had success in adapting the “Jean Pain Method” to collect lots of heat-energy (steady streams of 120-150 degree water) from specially designed compost mounds made of shredded woody biomass. (woodchips and bark mulch)

    The sustainable biomass yield per acre from harvesting brushwood, which by clearing gives the trees more resources/breathing room and reduces disease-potential, is estimated to be 2X the sustainable yield of harvesting trees. Every 5 years you can harvest the brush/undergrowth again, leaving the trees, while getting more tonnage per acre than you otherwise could.

    Plus we’re figuring out how to capture MORE heat from the composting process over a 12 month period, than could be captured by burning the material, while we generate high value organic soil-inputs without fossil fuels or animal-nitrogen.

    There’s a DIY design-guide on our website and there will be more than 12 installations this winter in Vt/NH/MA/Quebec who will be collecting heat from these systems (for space-heating, greenhouse heating and domestic hot water).

  • Gaelan,

    Here are some numbers.

    Cord weight of low grade green wood chips (50% water) = 5,000 lb = 2.5 ton.

    Heating value of low grade green wood chips = 9,400,000 Btu/ton, or 23,500,000 Btu/cord.

    The US National Park Service recommends harvesting no more than 1/2 cord per acre per year from a HEALTHY forest as a sustainable practice.

    New England forests are in bad shape, i.e., sick, because of acid rain. It is best to leave them alone to recover. That is the reason there is so much “junk” wood. Trees are dying prematurely. The forest is trying to rebuild itself.

    Vermont 2005 wood harvest = 804,872 cords. Timberland: public = 919,000 acres, private = 4,000,000 acres

    Note: Does someone have more recent data?

    Vermont has about 4.92 million acres of forested land, but only about 20% is accessible. That leaves 1 million acres x 1/2 a cord /acre = 500,000 cords, or 1,250,000 tons/yr.


    The 900,000 tons/yr = 360,000 cord/yr is that additional harvesting above the current 805,000 cords/yr? If yes, I think that may be optimistic. We may end up importing wood from other states.

    Ryegate and McNeil are about 26% efficient. Where does the 50% efficiency come from? Wishful thinking?

    Heating wet wood chips with boiler exhaust heat before burning them will increase the capital and operating cost of the plant.

    Does Germany, the best in the business, have such efficient biomass plants?

    Generating electricity with wood is not efficient.

    It is better to use wood for space heating with wood pellet stoves at about 80% annual average efficiency.

    The state could provide homeowners with incentives to replace their oil and gas furnaces with wood pellet stoves.

  • Thanks Willem, I think your stats are correct.

    But saying that only 20% of the forest is accessible and that therefore we can’t consider the other 80% a viable resource is like saying we can’t put solar panels on our roof because we don’t have a ladder. 100% of the fossil fuels on the planet are also inaccessible, but we still drill and frack and wage wars across the globe to give ourselves access.

    WE can give ourselves access to our native renewable resources in a much more ecological and economical way than how we’re currently getting our heating fuel!

    It’s true that our forests could be more healthy. But it’s also true that with proper management, especially including thinning the disease-prone congestion and standing dead-wood, that our forests could become healthier.

    Just like any living plant-resource, or even human hair, regular but moderate harvesting and trimming actually INCREASES GROWTH YIELDS. As it stands now, more standing deadwood rots in the VT forest every year than is harvested.

    Rotting wood in our forests is part of what builds the forest-soil, but it’s also possible to compost some of the forest-residues and return that soil-building material to the forest to create a forest-garden approach to management, which is how the Native Americans treated the eastern forests before European settlers drove them out. When the settlers arrived here, they could drive a wagon straight through the forest in any direction because the natives were managing the forests and cultivating fruits/nuts/herbs by keeping the forest-floors clear of excessive undergrowth. Modern perma-culture experts understand this.

    If Vermont transitions to domestic forestry as our primary heating source, yes that will impact the landscape and we’ll have to fight our flatlander-nimbyist impulses and allow for a working landscape. There would be more logging roads and run-off issues to mitigate. There would be more trucks on the roads. There would be issues to manage in terms of encouraging people to use efficient wood-stoves and efficient gasifying wood-boilers.

    My point is all of this is manageable, and the upside for our forests, and our local economy, is HUGE if we do it right.

  • Willem,

    I am not sure why you think I said electric generation from wood is 50% efficient. I am not aware of any technology that can produce that level of efficiency.

    I am not sure where others are getting their optimistic numbers on wood availability, as I worked for several years with our state forester, Robert De Geus, who provided numbers closer to what the report to the legislature stated (900,000 tons). What people have to consider is how much wood is actually accessible. Vermont has a very high percentage of its forest tied up in small private parcels. There just is not enough of an incentive (in terms of price) for anyone to organize these parcels.

    I would also suggest that readers who wish to become further educated about the problems with electricity from wood read the Manomet study that was commissioned by the state of Massachusetts.

    Don’t get me wrong, it is not that I do not support generating electricity from wood. I think we have to explore a myriad of solutions if we are going to address our climate change issues. The problem is that there are no easy choices. Oversimplifying, politicizing, and ignoring science is not helpful. We need to have a lot of informed debates as we move forward.