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Enviros urge Massachusetts to stop incentives for wood- and trash-fired heating

More than 30 environmental and conservation groups and scientists have urged Massachusetts to stop using public funds to subsidize biomass technologies for heating and electricity, and to stop classifying trash- and wood-fired heating as "clean" energy under the state's Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard, or APS.

In a March 20 letter the Sierra Club joined Environment Massachusetts; the Partnership for Policy Integrity, or PFPI; and others to call on the administration of Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, to discontinue all state programs that encourage wood burning for heat and electricity. Massachusetts "should not be incentivizing technologies that will accelerate climate change, worsen air quality, and use our forests for fuel," the letter said.

Instead, the groups declared support for House Bill 853, legislation introduced in January that would remove woody biomass and garbage incineration from eligibility in the APS, which provides incentives for installing energy-efficient heating technologies, such as combined heat and power, and renewable thermal technologies.

The letter is in response to the state Department of Energy Resources, or DOER, awarding on Feb. 11 almost $3 million from a "Renewable Thermal Infrastructure" grant program to biomass projects, most of which goes toward supporting the expansion and operations of wood-chipping facilities in western Massachusetts. The grants are further funded by alternative compliance payments paid by retail electric suppliers that did not meet their APS compliance obligations through the purchase of alternative energy certificates. In addition to the DOER support, the state-run Massachusetts Clean Energy Center has recently started offering up to $500,000 in grants for municipal buildings and businesses to transition their large buildings from fossil fuel-fired heating to high-efficiency, low-emissions advanced wood-fired heating systems.

"We can't burn our way out of the climate crisis," Mary Booth, director of Pelham-based PFPI, said in a press release. "Climate scientists agree that to avoid catastrophic climate change we need to reduce carbon emissions and increase natural carbon sinks, especially forests. Instead of following the science, the Baker Administration is using taxpayer and ratepayer subsidies to prop up the logging industry and promote more biomass burning."

The PFPI and other groups asserted that the Baker administration is promoting wood-burning heating at the expense of other renewable heating technologies eligible for the grant that do not pollute, such as solar heat, solar hot water, and air and ground source heat pumps.

At the time of the grant award by the DOER, state Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton praised the program for increasing the availability of "affordable, sustainable and locally sourced dried-fuel," while "facilitating sustainable and responsible land management" and "creating a clean energy future." In the same announcement, DOER Commissioner Judith Judson said the wood heating technologies reduce Massachusetts' reliance on conventional fossil fuels while lowering energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions.

In February, the Baker administration said recipients of the renewable thermal grants are required to match at least 50% of the project costs, which will result in approximately $6 million dollars of infrastructure upgrades across the state. Funded projects include woody biomass processing and delivery equipment, testing of modern wood heating and emission control devices to current U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards, and the installation of a tank to blend eligible biofuels with conventional heating oils.