[OPINION] Massachusetts: A Clear Path Forward for Biomass Energy
[Read the opposing view to this opinion piece, “Massachusetts: The Hoax of Biomass and Modern Forestry,” by RG Cachat, biochemist and ecologist]
– by Evan B. Dell’Olio, Director of External and Regulatory Affairs, Roberts Energy Renewables
With 3.1 million forested acres, Massachusetts is the 15th most forested state in the nation. Over 60% of the Bay State is covered in forested land, a conglomeration of privately and publically owned acreage, much of which sits in the state’s five most western counties. Of this land, 79% is owned either by private landowners or land trusts and the remaining 21% is held publically by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Since the arrival of our Puritan forbearers, these woodlands have provided a renewable natural resource for the manufacture of consumer goods and energy. Many private landowners have relied on a healthy forest economy to provide valuable cash crops in the form of cut timber and allow for the maintenance of such land for recreational purposes and the forests’ ultimate preservation.
The sawmill, as much a staple of the quintessential New England village as the dairy farm, cider mill, and sugar house, is quickly disappearing from Massachusetts’ rural landscape. While historically much of Massachusetts’ woodlands were subject to clearcutting, the Commonwealth has been a leader in sustainable forest management practices for over 70 years. Since 1943, Chapter 132 of the Massachusetts General Laws has protected the Bay State’s woodlands from destructive forest management practices. Over the decades this statute was revised on four separate occasions, each time reflecting the best interests of land preservation and forest health while allowing for continued managed timber harvesting. However, during this same period that the Commonwealth has been assuring the longevity of the forests, the health of the region’s forest products economy has experienced a precipitous decline, irrevocably damaging Massachusetts’ rural economy.
Over the past 30 years, rural Massachusetts has been the victim of the closure of numerous manufacturing plants, particularly in the metal fabrication, cable and wire, paper, tool and dye, and electrical components manufacturing industries. Foreign competition and the obsolescence of local manufacturing operations slowly eroded the local tax base as factories were shuttered, particularly in Berkshire, Franklin, and Worcester Counties. During this same period the local forest products industry experienced a similar chain of events. In 1993, Massachusetts boasted 94 active sawmill operations producing a total of 100 million board feet of lumber per year. By 2001 that number had decreased significantly to 40 such mills with 69 million board feet produced. As of 2016 it is estimated that the Commonwealth is home to less than 15 such commercial operations with Berkshire County, the state’s most forested county being home to no commercial sawmills after the closure of Lenox Lumber in 2015. Massachusetts’ forest economy is dying a painful death.
For the forest products industry, government-subsidized Canadian mills and overseas operations have largely taken up the demand which Massachusetts’ operations once filled. In fact 90% of Massachusetts’ forest products are manufactured out of state. Managed forestry of private lands continues.
Yet with no profitable opportunities to create value-added products within the Commonwealth, most of this wood is transported out of state. As a result, much of the region’s logging operations are unmechanized and the industry has been slow, particularly in western Massachusetts, to attract millennials to the industry. However, unlike their beleaguered industrial brethren, the forest products industry is unique in that the raw materials with which it manufactures its products are sourced directly from the region in which the mills operate. Many of these operations are integrated in that logging and milling operations are held within the same company.
For the Massachusetts forest products industry, it is not a question of profitability because of a lack of access to raw materials or strict regulatory schemes which make the industry unprofitable, but rather the choice of product which many of these firms choose to market which is resulting in the industry’s woes.
Electric power sourced from small and mid-scale energy efficient biomass-fueled power plants may be the most economical way to produce green, renewable baseload power in Massachusetts’ rural communities. It has been said by some organizations within the biomass community that the state Department of Energy Resource’s regulations pertaining to biomass power plants’ eligibility for Massachusetts’ coveted Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) were crafted so strict as to render their availability to the industry as meaningless.
Certainly the 60% efficiency requirement of these regulations has hindered the ability for several proposed large-scale biomass developments across the region to include REC profits in their pro formas and it has significantly hindered the viability of Maine’s biomass economy which formerly relied on Massachusetts’ pre-2012 REC regulations to generate extra income, resulting in several plant closures. However by focusing on developing smaller energy efficient systems, particularly of the combined heat and power variety, the Massachusetts local forest products industry can chose to re-tool, moving away from less-profitable traditional consumer products and towards the sale of renewable energy. Now is not the time to challenge the state’s REC regulations but to encourage the forest products industry to participate in the burgeoning field of biomass energy production in Massachusetts through installing equipment which meets the present state standards.
The Mohawk Trail, a 69-mile scenic byway comprised of Routes 2 and 2A between Athol, Massachusetts and the border with New York State in Williamstown, traverses the Commonwealth’s most rural and forested region with the highest concentration of rural poverty in southern New England. In 2015 the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, alongside several public and private partners, announced the creation of a three-year project to integrate sustainable forestry and energy production.
Officially titled the Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership, this project will make use of $1,560,000 of public and private funding to engage landowners in protecting their working woodlands through restrictive covenants and incentivize the construction of a sustainable wood fuels mill producing either wood fuel chips or wood pellets. Energy efficient stoves making use of such chips and pellets have become quite popular as a choice of thermal heat for residents of rural Massachusetts and neighboring Vermont, due to generous government incentives.
While the production of wood fuels is certainly one method of integrating renewable logging practices and energy production, this model could work even better for energy efficient biomass electric power incentivization. The production of such a green product as electric power does not depend on consumer choices to install specific heating equipment as does the wood fuels scenario. Every home, office, and place of industry in Massachusetts and neighboring states utilizes electric power for daily life and therefore an even larger market is readily available.
One of the greatest hindrances to the region’s remaining sawmills is the inefficiency and environmental liability of using diesel fuel to generate electric power for mill operations. By incorporating energy efficient biomass technology into their operations, area mills can become more energy independent and produce excess electricity for sale to the grid through Massachusetts’ generous net metering program.
Such mills often already have difficulty finding use for the plethora of low grade “pulp wood” prevalent in local forests. In fact is estimated that over 60% of Massachusetts forested acreage is filled with such trees. Formerly utilized in some furniture and papermaking operations, the decline of area firms engaging in those industries has left an open market for these trees use. Moreover the threat which the emerald ash borer poses to the health of the Commonwealth’s ash trees will require a readily available source to dispose of infected trees. Energy efficient biomass could present such an opportunity to marketably utilize these trees while also protecting healthy trees from becoming diseased.
These projects would have the potential to not only create and retain local jobs but also demonstrate how energy efficient biomass technology can be integrated into local manufacturing operations for eventual replication by area farms, factories, and municipal buildings for supplying electric power and heat.
Such projects have the potential to promote the growth of local economies by creating jobs in the logging, trucking, operations, and administrative areas of the biomass industry while also potentially spawning new local companies engaged in the manufacture and sale of renewable energy technology, a goal established by the Franklin Regional Council of Governments in that organization’s 2014 Northern Tier Cluster Study.
By promoting energy security through locally sourced power, generating financial opportunity for Massachusetts families, and growing the tax base in economically disadvantaged communities, the promotion of energy efficient biomass as a source of economic revival of Massachusetts’ beleaguered wood products industry and rural communities offers a unique opportunity forward.
Evan B. Dell’Olio, J.D., is director of external and regulatory affairs for Roberts Energy Renewables.