Last week, an article in the Wall Street Journal reported that the State of Massachusetts began implementing strict regulations on the burning of wood in power plants to generate electricity. The new regulations are based on an emerging body of scientific research documenting that burning wood on a large scale, and in particular the burning of whole trees, will likely result in increased carbon emissions when compared to coal and other fossil fuels. The new regulations are aimed at ensuring that energy providers who use wood as a “renewable” energy source are actually achieving net carbon emission reductions when compared to fossil fuels.
The practical impacts? Energy companies burning wood to generate electricity in Massachusetts won’t likely be able to verify net carbon emission reductions if they burn whole trees. And even if they are only burning wood waste they will still need to meet rigorous efficiency standards.
While Massachusetts is getting out in front, EPA and state agencies have yet to take action (though this could change soon, at least for EPA). Meanwhile some utility companies are already expanding their use of wood as an energy source. For example, Dominion Power in Virginia already operates one of the country’s largest biomass power plants, is actively converting three coal powered plants to biomass and plans to generate up to 20% of the electricity from its new coal plant in Wise County, Virginia from burning wood.
Even Europe is behind the curve, with utilities there burning wood imported from the US South and Canada, without regard for the true climate and forest impacts. Just last week, Dogwood Alliance Campaign Director, Scot Quaranda joined staff from Greenpeace US’s forest campaign on a tour of wood pellet mills in the South that are turning whole trees into pellets for export to burn in European power plants – all in the name of reducing carbon emissions!
In addition to carbon impacts, increased use of wood to provide electricity could have huge negative, landscape level impacts on forests and water resources while increasing air pollution in local communities. With a mounting body of science confirming that burning wood isn’t a green alternative to fossil fuels, it’s time to rethink wood as a “renewable” energy source for the future. While the small-scale use of wood may could a minimal role in meeting energy needs in the future, momentum is building for the large-scale use of wood as a primary fuel source. Utility companies should not look to wood as an energy source until they have appropriate policies in place, such as those required by the State of Massachusetts, to verify that they are actually reducing carbon emissions, and furthermore that they are not destroying forests or increasing air pollution for local communities. Massachusetts got it right…will others??