|Developer Bill Hull of Russell Biomass hopes to build one of the largest wood-burning facilities in the region generating electricity for public use, at this site in Russell.|
RUSSELL -- With electricity usage breaking records in New England, an old fuel is making a comeback as a relatively clean way to generate power -- wood.
At least five wood-burning power plants are being proposed or built in New England, encouraged by government incentives and environmentalists who tout wood as an ecofriendly substitute for fossil fuels.
But like wind farms proposed in Nantucket Sound and atop a Vermont ridge, the wood-burning plants are sparking fierce local opposition in places such as Russell, where a developer wants to locate a plant on the site of an abandoned paper mill.
"It's a staggeringly huge project for a quiet little spot," said Jana Chicoine , a member of Concerned Citizens of Russell , a grass-roots organization of residents. They say the plant would emit unhealthy air pollution and disturb the peaceful Western Massachusetts town with up to 40 truck deliveries of wood chips per day.
But as demand for energy skyrockets -- a single-day record was set in Wednesday's heat -- and prices for fossil fuels climb, many say that responsibly managed wood-burning plants provide a needed alternative.
Wood-burning conjures images of smoky chimneys and forest clear-cuts. But proponents of the plants say new technologies have dramatically cut air pollution. Modern forestry practices, such as forest thinning, offer the promise of wood chips without forest destruction.
At a time when all new energy projects in New England face massive political hurdles, wood-burning plants -- also called biomass plants, since they can also burn grass, leaves, and other natural refuse -- are quietly gaining ground.
If the Russell Biomass plant is built, it would be one of the largest wood-burning facilities in the region generating electricity for public use. An equally large plant in Portsmouth, N.H., will go online this September. Only one existing plant, in Maine, rivals it in size.
Two slightly smaller plants are proposed for Barre and Athens, Maine, and another is under construction in Ware. Meanwhile, college campuses and hospitals are constructing dozens of smaller units that produce both heat and electricity for their buildings.
Unlike wind farms, wood-burning plants don't require open spaces and can be placed in existing industrial zones.
"The problem we're having with all these wind farms is . . . they're proposing to put them in all the worst places," said Thomas W. French, assistant director of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. "If they could do what the Russell Biomass plant did, which is to find a preexisting, historical industrial district, we'd be applauding them." As part of the ongoing state permitting process for the plant, French's division worked with its developers to reroute proposed power lines to reduce their impact on wildlife.
A state law to encourage new sources of renewable energy favors the plants by creating financial incentives for their operators. The law requires that 2.5 percent of the state's power come from renewable sources, a figure that will climb to 4 percent by 2009.
Together, the new wood-burning plants being proposed and built in New England could generate enough electricity for 150,000 homes.
Wood-burning plants aren't as clean as wind power, conceded Susan Reid , staff attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental advocacy group that supports wood and other biomass as a fuel.
If the most up-to-date technologies are used, she said, wood produces about the same amount of air pollution as natural gas, considered the cleanest fossil fuel. Usually, it burns less cleanly than gas but more cleanly than coal.
Russell Biomass's expected emissions of nitrogen oxides, a key component of smog, are one concern, according to the American Lung Association of Massachusetts. The town is in a valley, where air pollutants could be trapped and aggravate health problems such as asthma and pulmonary inflammation, said Lung Association Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey E. Seyler.
However, Reid and other advocates note that wood-burning plants do not increase the amount of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, released into the atmosphere, which contribute to global warming. That's partly because the wood burned would have eventually decayed naturally to produce carbon dioxide anyway. Moreover, as new trees grow, they remove as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as is released by burning the same number of trees.
Energy demand in New England is rising about 2 percent per year, but building of power-generating facilities has not kept pace, partly because of local opposition. More than a half-dozen liquefied natural gas terminals have been proposed across New England, but all have been bogged down by controversy. Wind farms, despite their benign environmental footprint, face similar resistance. And proposals to increase the power generated by nuclear plants are fought vigorously.
"These New England towns get kind of ornery," said Jon G. McGowan a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who primarily studies wind energy.
McGowan lives near Hinsdale, N.H., where public outcry greeted a proposal to build a plant that would burn wood from the construction and demolition of buildings.
Such wood, unless carefully sorted, can contain paint, nails, insulation, or wiring that emit metals or hazardous chemicals when burned, said Paul Miller, deputy director of Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, an organization that advises state governments on air quality issues.
The controversy prompted the state of New Hampshire to issue a moratorium on the burning of such material. Genpower, a Needham-based company, then withdrew its Hinsdale proposal, but it still plans to burn some construction and demolition-derived wood in its proposed plants in Barre and Athens, said Thomas D. Emero of Genpower. Massachusetts and Maine allow the burning of this material, but under pressure from residents, Russell Biomass has pledged not to burn such wood.
In Russell, an amendment to town bylaws that would have banned wood-burning plants narrowly missed the two-thirds majority it needed to pass during a town meeting in May.
The controversy has divided the town and sparked bitterness, pitting "neighbor against neighbor," said Susan B. Maxwell, an assessor for Russell who has lived in the town all her life. She supports the plant, noting it would provide more than $300,000 per year in tax revenue and 20 permanent jobs. For a town that has lost three paper mills in the last 11 years, that's a boon, she said.
"It's my backyard too," Maxwell added. "It's everyone's backyard."
(Correction: Because of a reporting error, a Page One story Saturday about wood-burning power plants incorrectly described the number of truck deliveries of wood chips to a proposed plant in Russell. The Russell Biomass plant would receive 80 shipments a day.)