Wood Energy Not 'Green' Enough, Says Massachusetts Wind and solar get lots of attention, but another kind of renewable power creates more energy in the U.S. — wood. Massachusetts decided these plants aren't green enough to get some special breaks.

    Environment Story Of The Day NPR hide caption

    toggle caption

Wood Energy Not 'Green' Enough, Says Massachusetts

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/159394216/159392665" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


When it comes to renewable energy, wind and solar get a lot of attention. But wood actually creates more power in the U.S., and Massachusetts state officials are scaling back their efforts to encourage wood power. It may be a renewable resource, they say, but that doesn't mean it's good for the environment.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren has that story.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: Power plants that turn wood into electricity aren't anything new. They're called biomass plants. They've become more popular as states have tried to reduce the use of fossil fuels. The idea is wood is a renewable resource. You can always grow more, but the state of Massachusetts decided it wasn't enough to be renewable. It wants climate-friendly fuel, so it kicked most power plants that burned wood out of a program that helps renewable electricity plants earn more revenue.

Mark Sylvia is commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources.

MARK SYLVIA: I think what it says is that Massachusetts is very curious about focusing on our climate goals.

SHOGREN: Massachusetts wants to cut its greenhouse gases 25 percent by 2020 and power plants are a huge source of greenhouse gases, so the state asked some scientists to take a hard look at the greenhouse gas footprint of power plants that burn wood.

John Gunn of the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences was one of the researchers who did the study. He says the results challenged conventional wisdom.

JOHN GUNN: Basically, we found that if you're going to switch from using fossil fuels for energy to using more wood for energy that, for a period of time, the atmosphere would see an increase in greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide.

SHOGREN: Gunn says these wood power plants emit about 30 percent more carbon dioxide than coal plants and 66 percent more than natural gas. The biomass industry criticized the study. Peter Bos, a developer of biomass plants, says it doesn't reflect that the power plants use a lot of waste wood instead of trees.

PETER BOS: We're talking about tree trimmings from tree service companies, land clearing by builders, storm damaged trees, diseased trees, sawmill residue and a number of other what you would call clean waste wood sources.

SHOGREN: Bos has done his own analysis. He says, if not burned, these wood scraps would decay and produce even more greenhouse gases. Bos says there are human costs of the new rule, too. He'll probably have to cancel a proposed plant in Russell, Massachusetts, and he says that means the community will miss out on millions of tax dollars and hundreds of jobs.

BOS: So I feel sorry for Russell, Mass. and other communities that could have benefited from these plants.

SHOGREN: Bob Cleaves, president of the Biomass Power Association, says existing plants will probably have to shut down, too.

BOB CLEAVES: There is an overabundance of natural gas in the United States today that's driving down electricity costs, making renewable energy harder and harder to compete. And, as a result, without that premium, it becomes very difficult in terms of cost to be able to continue to operate.

SHOGREN: Still, scientist John Gunn says Massachusetts was right to set the bar high for biomass because using trees for inefficient power isn't a positive solution for the forests or the planet.

Are you stepping in as a modern day Lorax here?

GUNN: Ha. You know, I had the Lorax as my Facebook icon for a little while there.

SHOGREN: Gunn says the Dr. Seuss book was a major inspiration in his childhood and he's glad to have had a chance to speak for the trees. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.