Biomass Power Burns Quickly Through Legislature

Rhode Island lawmakers ignore science and studies to embrace burning of wood and construction debris, referring to the power it creates as very clean

Video and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI New staff

PROVIDENCE — Controversial wood-burning energy just received a boost from the General Assembly.

On April 25, a Senate committee advanced a bill (S2652) to the Senate floor that groups woody biomass with wind and solar power as a renewable energy that qualifies for connection to the electric grid.

The bill was written to help the sale of electricity from a nearly 9-megawatt power plant that runs on wood chips and construction debris being built in Johnston by Mark DePasquale of Green Development LLC of North Kingstown.

Woody biomass has been criticized by environmentalists who say that burning wood, and construction debris in particular, releases high levels of particulate matter and carbon dioxide. Wood-based fuel has triggered a global debate as coal-burning power plants are being replaced in Europe and China by wood-burning power plants.

Recent studies have also found that the carbon dioxide emissions released during the burning of the wood fuel, which is mostly derived of wood chip from forests in the southwestern United States, takes decades to be replaced by newly planted trees.

The debate further intensified as the Trump administration pushed to classify woody biomass as a renewable energy. The move favors the tree-harvesting industry but lacks scientific evidence showing that it doesn’t exacerbate climate change.

The Partnership for Policy Integrity (PFPI) claims that woody biomass burns 50 percent more CO2 per megawatt generated than coal.

“Emissions from a biomass power plant exceed those from a natural gas plant by more than 800 percent for every major pollutant,” according to written testimony from PFPI in its opposition to the Senate and House (H8020) bills.

Sen. Jeanine Calkin, D-Warwick, was the only member of the Senate committee to vote against advancing the bill.

"My reason for opposing the bill is mainly because of my concerns with increasing CO2 emissions and air pollution, " Calkin said after the vote. "Burning wood is one of the largest sources of air pollution in the U.S. per unit of energy they produce, and wood chip and pellet burners typically produce more pollutants into the air than fossil fuel burners.  The resulting air pollution can be a big concern for families that have adults or children with breathing problems such as asthma or emphysema."

The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) also opposes adding woody biomass to the list of eligible net-metering renewable energies. In its testimony, CLF stated “biomass (except from anaerobic digestion) is not as clean and not as desirable as other renewable energy sources.”

CLF noted that woody biomass was intentionally excluded from net-metering legislation in Rhode Island in 2011 because of the controversy about its pollution.

Rhode Island already gets a hefty amount of woody biomass power through its Renewable Energy Standard (RES) program that delivers renewable energy from around New England to local electric sockets. Biomass was included in the 2004 legislation that established the RES program as a concession to get it passed, but according to the just released report from the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission 29 percent of RES electricity comes from tree-burning power plants in New Hampshire and Maine. Wood power has been a large portion of the Rhode Island’s renewable portfolio for several years, while Massachusetts and Connecticut have scaled back its use in similar programs.

DePasquale insisted that none of the wood at his power plant will come from fresh-cut trees but mostly from the 250 tons of construction and brush debris that heads to the Central Landfill daily, along with a mix of wood chips. But that isn’t comforting to opponents of woody biomass who argue that the pollutants from construction waste are much higher than wood. Opponents claim that this facility and perhaps future ones will blur the line between incinerator and biomass by burning other waste such as tires and plastic.

“I don’t think this is an incinerator,” Senate President Dominick Ruggerio told ecoRI News after the recent vote. “It’s a very clean power.”

Ruggerio, a member of the Committee on the Environment & Agriculture, made a rare appearance at the April 25 meeting to cast his vote.

He said the Johnston biomass facility will save taxpayers money by diverting waste from the Central Landfill, which is on track to run out of space by 2032. After that trash will likely have to shipped out of state at a higher cost than current tip fees, according to Ruggerio.

“We have to figure out something,” Ruggerio said. “I just think we have to think outside of the box.”

The House version of the bill was heard April 24. Even if the legislation isn't approved this year, there is significant momentum for similar legislation and wood-based power plants. On April 23, Scott Pruitt's Environmental Protection Agency stepped into the controversy by declaring woody biomass carbon neutral.

“Burning trees for energy will only worsen pollution, exacerbate climate change and harm public health," according to the Sierra Club.

The full Senate votes on the bill on May 2.