[EXCLUSIVE] Is Biomass Heating Safe for Schools?
– by Josh Schlossberg, The Biomass Monitor
Four school districts in western Massachusetts plan to switch out existing oil or propane heating systems for wood pellets, despite red flags raised by public health advocates.
Currently, biomass heating in New England is more economical than propane, slightly more expensive than fuel oil # 2, and several times more costly than natural gas.
As of May, the average cost of propane per million BTU in New Hampshire is $28.32 ($2.59/gallon), with wood pellets at $15.65 ($258/ton), fuel oil #2 at $13.95 ($1.93/gallon), and natural gas at $8.62 ($.86/therm), according to the New Hampshire Office of Energy and Planning.
The Massachusetts Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs doesn’t publish BTU calculations, however rates for propane are slightly higher than in New Hampshire ($2.75/gallon), nearly the same for wood pellets ($260/ton), and fuel oil a bit higher ($2.18/gallon), with the biggest difference being natural gas, at one-third the cost ($.25/therm).
To help defray the expense of “renewable thermal heating and cooling upgrades,” the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER) offers Schools and Public Housing Integrating Renewables and Efficiency (SAPHIRE) grants.
This year, the Sanderson Academy Elementary School in Ashfield received a $171,598 SAPHIRE grant to replace its oil heating system with wood pellets. Last year, the Hawlemont Elementary School in Charlemont and Heath Elementary School received a total of $355,375 to switch to wood pellets.
Other recipients of SAPHIRE grants for switching from oil to biomass heating include the Mount Everett Regional High School and Undermountain Elementary in the Southern Berkshire Regional School District, Overlook Middle School in the Ashburnham-Westminster Regional School District, Petersham Central Elementary School in the Ralph C. Mahar Regional School District, and the Berlin Memorial Elementary School in the Berlin-Boylston Regional School District.
But economics isn’t the only topic relevant to biomass heating at schools. The American Lung Association, the Buckland County Board of Health, and local advocates are worried about schoolchildren’s exposure to air pollution from wood heating systems.
In March, the American Lung Association of the Northeast, based in East Hartford, Connecticut, sent letters to the R.C. Mahar, Mohawk Trail, Hawlemont, and Mohawk school districts, warning about the health risks of installing wood pellet boilers. The letter, signed by Casey Harvell, Director of Public Policy, asks school officials to “consider the harmful health impacts for children and school staff.”
A study referenced by the letter, published in Inhalation Toxicology in 2007, found that “woodsmoke contains thousands of chemicals, many of which have well-documented adverse human health effects.” Air pollutants mentioned by the Lung Association include “harmful particle pollution, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxide.”
In 2013, the World Health Organization determined particulate matter to be carcinogenic, and concluded “there is no evidence of a safe level of exposure or a threshold below which no adverse health effects occur.”
The Lung Association cautions that “youth, elderly, and those with pre-existing respiratory diseases like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are a greater risk” from pellet heating, while noting Massachusetts’ high asthma rates, tied for fourth place in the U.S. along with Oregon, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Charlie Niebling is a partner with Innovative Natural Resource Solutions LLC, a Concord, New Hampshire-based firm that consults with clients on renewable energy. He says while solid fuels such as pellets can emit more particulate matter than liquid fuels or gas, “modern pellet boiler technology combusts very cleanly and efficiently.”
“Every form of energy we use comes with choices about environmental impacts, and nearly every essential function in modern society generates particulate emissions,” says Niebling, including agriculture, the transportation sector, and manufacturing.
However, as long as a facility is “properly sited, installed and operated,” says Niebling, “I don’t think there is any demonstrable public health concern.”
Niebling suggests that those concerned about particulates “would be far better served devoting all their attention to helping homeowners replace old, inefficient wood stoves with modern wood, wood pellet or wood chip technology.”
When asked about alternatives to biomass heating, Harvell responded via email that the Lung Association supports “cleaner energy including solar and ground source heat pumps.”
The American Lung Association isn’t alone in its concerns. On March 7, the Town of Buckland Board of Health also sent a letter to the Mohawk Trail and Hawlemont Regional School Districts, saying it “strongly opposes” the biomass heating proposals.
The Board was left “doubting the truthfulness” of the Mohawk Trail Regional School Biomass Boiler & Solar PV Study used to justify the facility, conducted by BEAM Engineering, and contested the study’s claim that biomass is a “cleaner burning fuel than propane.”
The Board asserted that “numerous studies have shown serious impacts to children from increasing levels of particulate matter air pollution, effects that result in permanent life-long impacts.”
While Sanderson Academy is shooting to have its pellet system installed by winter, the Mohawk High School is installing an updated propane system rather than making the switch to biomass. The decision was based on economics, not public health, according to a school official, as reported by the Greenfield Recorder.
Biomass opponent Janet Sinclair, founding member of Concerned Citizens of Franklin County, sees a bigger picture in regards to the expansion of wood pellet heating in Massachusetts. She points to the Mohawk Trail Woodland Partnership, a state proposal to designate a twenty-one town area in western Massachusetts as federal lands, with a goal to “increase sustainable forestry practices and support energy efficient renewable wood heat.”
The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources provided $350,000 to study the expansion of wood pellet heating in the state, along with the feasibility of a wood pellet facility.
While supportive of an increase in biomass heating, the Mohawk Trail Woodland Partnership acknowledges that “smoke from wood burning can be a significant contributor to air pollution and can pose a public health risk,” and that “emissions from wood burning systems typically are higher than fossil fuel heating systems,” though installing filters can reduce these emissions.
As familiar with biomass emissions as anyone in the region, Charlie Niebling thinks critics’ worries are exaggerated, saying “opponents’ angst over use of locally produced heating fuels instead of imported heating oil, propane, or natural gas is misplaced and far out of proportion to the true comparative risk and the impacts they allege.”