Could Small-Scale Forestry Biomass Serve as an Economic Driver for the Region?
By Genevieve Fraser
While the debate rages over large-scale utility use of forestry biomass in Massachusetts, scant attention has been paid to the economic benefits of small scale biomass use as an economic driver. A centerpiece for this effort could be the creation of a no-waste, integrated wood products industrial park once envisioned by the now defunct Forest and Wood Products Institute based at Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner, MA.
The “model” industrial park could contain a sawmill processing underutilized species and small logs. The waste would serve to power cogeneration turning biomass into electricity and thermal (heat) use. The centre could also include value-added functions such as flooring, furniture, cabinetry, boxes, pallets and an “incubator” such as a wood pellet manufacturer. However, with or without the sawmill component, any industrial park would be well served by the installation of a small scale cogeneration biomass plant.
Though the “model” industrial park has yet to materialize, the college did convert their heating system to biomass and have saved approximately $300,000 per year. The Athol-Royalston Regional High School also converted to a wood chip biomass system and saves about $20,000 annually. Hospitals are considered ideal candidates for biomass cogeneration due to their thermal (heating, cooling, cooking, sterilization) and electrical loads which operate 24/7 throughout the year. After reviewing the advantages, Cooley Dickinson Hospital installed a 230 kW Advanced Biomass Combined Heat and Power generation system at its Northampton Hospital site.
The US Environmental Protection Agency claims that biomass does not contribute to greenhouse gases because it recycles carbon already in the natural carbon cycle. No new CO2 is added to the atmosphere as long as the forests from which the wood came are sustainably managed. In addition, forest biomass contains only trace amounts of sulfur oxides as opposed to significant amounts contained in fuel oil and acid rain producing coal.
Currently, three electricity generation plants totaling 165 MW have been proposed for the state based on an abundant stock of low-quality wood in Massachusetts forests. Aside from traffic, air quality and water use issues, concerns have been raised that large scale or industrial forestry would tip the balance away from sustainability. But small scale biomass facilities could revitalize the region and serve as a powerful incentive for business and industry to locate in an area that can provide inexpensive, sustainable fuel.
At the June 2009 joint meeting of the Technical Steering Committee (TSC) and the Advisory Group of Stakeholders (AGS) for the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Forest Futures Visioning Process, the point was made that “the concept of ‘buy local’ has worked to strengthen the farming sector in the Commonwealth and could work for the forestry sector as well.”
“The Commonwealth still has several dozen mills that can process wood locally. DCR hopes that the Technical Steering Committee will consider in developing its recommendations strategies that could help re-vitalize local mills, help the climate (by reducing transportation carbon inputs) and replace plastic, concrete, steel, etc in buildings, bridges etc., thereby reducing the Commonwealth’s collective carbon emissions.”
Genevieve Fraser is an Independent candidate for state representative for the 2nd Franklin District. She is the recipient of a Massachusetts Environmental Commendation for her work as the organizer of the Acid Rain Awareness Weeks in 1984-85 and has worked as an Environmental Technical Writer.