Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Environmentalists recently staged a silent protest as a House committee passed a controversial biomass energy bill that clears the way for a wood-fueled power plant in the state.
The bill adds biomass to the list of renewable-energy sources that qualify for the electricity reimbursement program known as net metering. Biomass encompasses a broad list of power sources and fuels such as food scrap, biodiesel and landfill gas. It also includes wood, wood pellets and wood from construction debris. This so-called “woody biomass” is disputed for its claimed environment benefits. A growing volume of research shows that wood-burning power plants release a high concentration of carbon dioxide and that the burning of wood waste emits unhealthy levels of particulate matter.
The debate is playing out globally, as coal-fired power plants in Europe and Asia convert to woody biomass. With limited research to back the claim, the European Union classified woody biomass as carbon neutral. The Environmental Protection Agency recently issued the same designation in April. President Trump added incentives in his budget for woody biomass energy. And states are passing laws to expand the wood-fuel and timber industries.
Opponents see the designation as a handout to wood-harvesting businesses. They raise concerns about deforestation, climate change and air pollution.
The House and Senate bills are moving quickly through the General Assembly so that a 9-megawatt wood-burning energy facility can be built near the Central Landfill in Johnston.
Earlier this year, when discussing the glacial pace of annual carbon-tax bills moving through the General Assembly, House Speaker Rep. Nicholas Mattiello, D-Cranston, told ecoRI News that, “The system is designed so that legislation moves slowly."
The project proposed by Green Development LLC of North Kingstown would be fueled by a mixture of wood pallets, wood construction debris and wood chips. Owner Mark DePasquale claims it will extend the life of the Central Landfill, limit municipal costs, and have minimal impacts on air quality.
Nothing has been provided to the General Assembly to support those assertions, and no application for the project has been submitted in Johnston, the only town mentioned as a possible host for the facility. The project would require a full review by the town and need pollution permits from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.
Public testimony wasn't allowed during the May 15 vote, but a dozen environmentalists representing groups such as the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, Conservation Law Foundation, Environment Council of Rhode Island, and People’s Power & Light stood in silent protest as the vote was taken.
In addition to the public health and climate risks, opponents worry that adding the biomass designation to net metering will bring larger incineration and waste-to-energy facilities to Rhode Island.
“Biomass incineration releases dangerous soot and other air pollutants. If this bill passes, Rhode Island children will experience more asthma, and Rhode Island adults will experience more cases of lung disease and stroke. Rhode Island asthma rates are already higher than the national average, with people of color suffering significantly more than white people,” according to a letter of opposition from Rhode Island Interfaith Power & Light.
Rep. Jeremiah O’Grady, D-Lincoln, cast the single vote against the bill.
“I think that clear-cutting forest land in the name of 'green' is dangerously shortsighted," O'Grady told ecoRI News after the vote. “But I think that incinerating construction debris and calling it a 'renewable resource' is totally disingenuous."