Sens. Ed Markey, Elizabeth Warren oppose Springfield biomass project by Palmer Renewable Energy

Jim Kinney

Dec 24, 2020; Posted Dec 24, 2020

SPRINGFIELD — Massachusetts’ two U.S. senators, Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, have asked the state to suspend and reassess the approval it gave 12 years ago for a still-unbuilt Springfield biomass plant that would take wood chips and burn them for electricity.

Developer Palmer Renewable Energy said Wednesday it has already begun work at the site, 1000 Page Blvd. in East Springfield.

The two Democratic senators want the project put on hold at least until the incoming Biden administration comes out with a green energy and climate change program, according to a letter sent to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

“Springfield residents deserve an updated air quality analysis that reflects the city’s current health and environmental justice issues, which have become more acute in the decade since MassDEP initially issued the Conditional Approval,” the senators wrote to MassDEP Commissioner Martin Suuberg. “In reassessing the Palmer biomass plant proposal, MassDEP needs to account for the latest research into the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory health risks in the surrounding population, and the historic burden of air pollution on the local community.”

Will Elizabeth Warren win in Massachusetts?
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., questions gas executives as U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. looks on during a hearing on gas pipeline safety in the Merrimack Valley Monday, Nov. 26, 2018, in Lawrence, Mass. Both are questioning the Springfield project. AP

Markey and Warren spoke out as the project — first proposed in 2008 — is back in the news because of proposed changes in state regulations that might make the $150 million, 35-megawatt plant financially viable.

One proposed change announced this week by the administration of Gov. Charlie Baker would make the project eligible for $13 million to $15 million a year in green energy incentives via the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard regulations, said Laura Haight of Partnership for Policy Integrity.

“What Baker is proposing is exactly what Palmer requested,” she said.

Palmer’s is the only such plant currently on the drawing board, said Springfield City Councilor Jesse Lederman.

The other change, one the Legislature has been working on all through 2020 as part of an energy bill, would make it easier for municipal utilities to buy power from the project as green power. As it stands now, state rules bar plants like the one proposed by Palmer Renewable Energy from collecting green energy subsidies.

Haight said Palmer is already marketing its power to the municipal utilities.

“Which of course is ridiculous,” she said. “It is unscientific and should not become law and it’s an embarrassment to the state of Massachusetts.”

Both measures are before lawmakers on Beacon Hill now.

Monday, the Springfield City Council passed a resolutionopposing state renewable energy subsidies for wood-burning biomass plants. The Council’s long-held opposition to the plant also came up during discussion of the transfer of a city property nearby, a property that will be used to store wood chips.

“I think it’s all of our jobs to see that the laws of the commonwealth and of the city of Springfield are followed,” Lederman said.

He added that it’s an environmental justice issue because the of Springfield’s high rates of asthma. For years he said, projects like this were rubber-stamped for Springfield.

The resolution also cites a 2012 study by the state, known as the Manomet Study, which found wood-burning biomass power plants emit more pollution than coal power plants.

Palmer pointed Wednesday to a newer study — one also prepared for the state — showing that burning waste wood, cuttings and downed branches destined for landfills has less of an adverse environmental impact than the Manomet study said.

“The facts, science, and forestry management best practices all recognize the important role that biomass waste wood can play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and expanding the Commonwealth’s renewable energy portfolio,” Palmer Renewable Energy said in a statement. “These environmental benefits of biomass were reaffirmed earlier this month by an independent third-party study commissioned by (the Department of Energy Resources). In reliance on our validly issued permits, which were obtained after a comprehensive review and approval process, we are now in active construction and look forward to bringing this green energy project to fruition.”

Starting work on the project is important because opponents, including Lederman, have made an issue about the city building permit for the project lying dormant since 2012.