Biomass energy: dirty, highly inefficient and not sustainable

Saturday March 30, 2013

On Saturday, March 16, Senator Sanders held another in a series of discussions on climate change. This one was at Montpelier High School and was attended by some 400 Vermonters. Most of us know well that Senator Sanders is a steadfast supporter of efforts to address climate change. The Senator recognizes that climate change is one of the most important issues confronting the health and welfare of the world's ever-growing population. He also knows that greenhouse gas emissions contribute mightily to climate change.

More than debate and discussion, town meetings and offerings and comments over the Internet, Senator Sanders now has the opportunity to take action on his public statements about curbing green house gas emissions and reducing Vermont's contribution to climate change. He can do so and set an example for others and he can provide demonstrable evidence of Vermont's forward looking position on climate change.

Senator Sanders and Governor Shumlin can offer action to impact climate change by exerting their influence to halt the construction of an industrial, 35 Mw wood-burning biomass power plant in Springfield. The Springfield biomass plant proposal which is presently before the Public Service Board will produce 1,229 tons of greenhouse gas each day and 448,700 tons of greenhouse gas per year, according to the developer. In addition to burning green wood fuel, the harvest, the processing and the transport of wood will also produce prodigious quantities greenhouse gas. Other pollutants described in the developer's documents will adversely affect Vermont's air-quality and will emit particulate matter, ozone and dust into the air along roadways and in towns.

How far in Vermont and beyond will these emissions travel? Nobody knows.

Biomass energy is not only dirty but it is also highly inefficient and according to some is not sustainable when the rate of exploitation of Vermont's forests is compared to the rate of re-growth of Vermont's woodlands. At the meeting in Montpelier, a resident of Williamstown noted that she was converting her house to solar and a wood-burning furnace that is 85-percent efficient. The biomass plant proposed for Springfield that will burn green wood chips will do so with an efficiency of 26 percent. Simply put, quality residential wood furnaces are more than three times as efficient as the proposed Springfield plant, and on a small rather than an industrial scale.

Finally, regarding efficiency, it is interesting to note that Massachusetts now requires that power generation be, at minimum, 50- percent efficient.

Senator Sanders has spoken frequently and forcefully, on curbing greenhouse gas and in turn, slowing the pace and impact of global climate change. Senator Sanders now has a real opportunity to transform words into action by taking a stand against greenhouse gas in Vermont. While efficient, small-scale biomass heating has a place in our state, industrial scale, inefficient biomass burning is contrary to the public good and it undermines the public pronouncements from elected officials against greenhouse gas production and slowing the pace of climate change.

Senator Sanders deserves our support and needs our encouragement to act, to stop the Springfield biomass project before it starts. Our elected officials have a window of opportunity right now to lead the way to a consistent, rational and forward looking energy policy in Vermont.

Randall Susman is a professor in the Department of Anatomical Sciences at State University of New York at Stony Brook and a resident of Springfield.


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