Woody Biomass Power Supported By Suspect Claims

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — A small power plant that runs on wood pallets and construction debris moved closer to being built after a crucial bill moved swiftly through the Senate.

S2652 adds woody biomass to the list of renewable-energy generators, such as wind and solar, that qualify for a connection to the electric grid known as net metering. Biomass includes electricity generation from wood and wood waste and there is considerable disagreement about the pollution and carbon emissions from these sources and facilities.

Reports indicate that burning wood scrap and junk lumber speeds up the release of carbon dioxide, compared to wood that decomposes naturally. It also emits high levels of particulate matter that contribute to air pollution.

Proponents claim that burning wood reduces greenhouse-gas emissions.

“This process is more efficient, producing more energy with less emissions, and much cleaner than burning or throwing the wood away,” Sen. Susan Sosnowski, D-South Kingstown, said during the May 2 Senate vote that approved the bill, 30-3.

Sosnowski borrowed the quote from a letter written by Green Development LLC, the developer of a planned woody biomass power plant in Johnston. The letter was submitted as testimony at an April 24 House hearing and an April 25 Senate hearing.

There is little research, however, that supports the so-called “clean” benefits of burning wood to generate electricity. In fact, recent studies suggest the opposite, noting that the intense release of carbon dioxide from burning wood takes decades to recapture through the planting of new trees.

Both Sosnowski and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said one of the key benefits of the project is diverting wood from being buried in the Central Landfill, which is estimated to reach capacity by 2034. Rerouting an estimated 200,000 tons of wasted wood also reduces greenhouse-gas emissions from the landfill, they claim.

But the state’s primary landfill collects wood pallets which it grinds up and reuses to soak up moisture on a dirt road. Scrap lumber is buried in the landfill.

The Central Landfill also curbs its greenhouse-gas emissions by hosting one of the largest landfill-gas power plants east of the Mississippi River. Gas collected through a vast vacuum system buried within the landfill is burned to generate enough electricity to power 28,000 homes. The energy system is the state’s largest producer of renewable energy.

The Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation, the operator of the Central landfill, hasn't taken a position on the wood-waste power-plant project.

There was little opposition to the bills in House and Senate hearings, with only the Conservation Law Foundation contesting the legislation. Sen. Jeanine Calkin, D-Warwick, opposed the bill during the April 25 committee vote.

“I understand that some may consider biomass as ‘renewable’ because trees can be replanted ... but I don't believe we should be incentivizing energy production that adds CO2 to the atmosphere or creates more air pollution," Calkin recently told ecoRI News. “I also understand that there are concerns about space at the landfill, but I believe there are other ways to address that concern other than burning biomass."

Climate-change mitigation is another issue, she noted.

“Our state has set clear greenhouse gas-emission goals with the Resilient Rhode Island Act, and I feel that allowing biomass to be included in net-metering incentives will only encourage its use and therefore make it harder for us to reach those set goals," Calkin said.

Calkin, Dawn Euer, D-Newport, and Ana Quezada, D-Providence, voted against the bill in the 30-3 vote by the full Senate.

The Senate bill has moved on to the House Committee on Corporations. No date has been set for a hearing. The legislation was introduced March 20 and has moved quickly through the General Assembly. New bills often take years to advance this far.

So far, the legislation benefits the one project, a nearly 9-megawatt wood-burning power for a site on Shun Pike in Johnston. Green Development is currently building five wind turbines in Johnston.

The biomass project hasn't been approved and no application has been submitted to the Johnston building office. The application will require full review by the Johnston Planning Board and the Town Council. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management must also issue pollution permits for the project.

Green Development said in a letter to the General Assembly that the project will only be economically feasible if it's allowed to qualify for net metering.