The Feasibility and Environmental Benefits of Utilizing Woody Biomass in Massachusetts

For a long time now man has dug for coal as a source of energy and it is still utilized globally. In coal burning power plants combusting coal generates energy and it heats up water that creates steam. The steam moves a turbine that creates electricity. Electricity uses over 90% of coal produced in the United States, accounting for 39% of the country’s electricity consumption. The United States is starting to make an effort to cut back on coal use for electricity, while other countries are starting to increase their use (Magill, 2014). Globally, in the past decade, the number of coal power plants has grown and so has carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. Within the next forty years 300 billion tons of carbon dioxide will enter the atmosphere from coal power plants (Magill, 2014). These high carbon dioxide emissions devastate our environment. Fortunately, there is a growing movement to switch to renewable energy sources, which could offer better alternatives to coal.

The environment faces many detrimental penalties from the creation of energy and electricity generation. For many years, Massachusetts relied on using fossil fuels such as natural gas, coal and oil, to create energy. Understanding the consequences of burning these fuels shows us that we need to focus more on renewable resources. Massachusetts generates 13% of its energy from coal. Only 9% of energy that Massachusetts generates comes from renewable energy sources (“Massachusetts State Profile and Energy Estimates”, 2012). In Massachusetts alone, coal emits 8.9 million tons of carbon dioxide a year (“Coal Free Massachusetts”, 2014). It is important to use other sources of energy to lessen the demand on fossil fuels. This will also decrease the amount of emissions that are created and the dependence on uncertain fuel supplies.

A problem that we face when moving forward with divesting from fossil fuel energy and replacing it with renewable energy sources is that fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas are extractable fuels, are relatively cheap, and there is a great deal of knowledge about them (“Renewable and Non-Renewable Energy Resources”, 2014). Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar energy are very hard to take advantage of in different environments throughout Massachusetts. Though there is solar and wind energy being produced, the price of installation and obtaining energy is much greater than the amount of energy that Massachusetts harvests (“Renewable and Non-Renewable Energy Resources”, 2014).

A better alternative is woody biomass. Woody biomass is an organic material that when combusted, creates energy. It comes from the residues of trees such as branches that fall down or are cut off (“Biomass Basics”, 2014). To create a lot of energy with woody biomass you need a large area of forests to retrieve it from. Massachusetts is the 8th most forested state in the country (Catanzaro, 2014). The abundance of wood in Massachusetts makes for a good alternative energy source that can take the place of coal. By 2018 all coal burning power plants will be shut down in Massachusetts (Cleveland, 2014). A feasible option to offset the lost energy production from these coal power plants is to build new biomass burning power plants. Massachusetts should build new wood-burning power plants in order to meet future energy needs while minimizing environmental impact.

A Renewable Resource

Switching from coal burning power plants to wood burning power plants would minimize the environmental impact of energy production. The difference between these nonrenewable sources and wood are that they are finite resources, whereas wood is a renewable energy source and can be regrown over and over again. The key to using biomass in an effective way is to only remove the tops and limbs of trees because these parts decay very quickly anyways and so they do not help sequester that much carbon dioxide (Walker, Cardellichio, Gunn, Saah & Hagan, 2013, p. 147). This method allows biomass to continually be extracted from trees without killing the entire tree to get the energy (Walker et al., 2013, p. 147).

Another way that biomass can be utilized in a sustainable and renewable way is through the use of logging residues. There are many parts of trees that are not commonly utilized in milling timber and making paper, which are the top services provided by logging (“How Biomass Energy Works”, 2009). These residual products such as bark, sawdust, and shavings are currently the largest source of biomass-based heat and renewable electricity. By utilizing this waste that is already created, biomass can be a renewable resource (“How Biomass Energy Works”, 2009).

The last way to use forest sustainable is through sustainable forestry.  Sustainable forestry practices are used on forests that are carefully managed so that trees that are extracted from the forests (that are used for timber wood or other applications) are replaced with seedlings that eventually grow into mature trees (Ryan, 2010). By continually replenishing forests with new trees and cutting them down, it creates a renewable source of wood residues that can be used as a source of biomass energy. This practice of forest sustainability has a direct correlation with woody biomass sustainability and is a critical process when trying to keep woody biomass a renewable energy source.

Emission Reduction

When sustainable forestry practices are used it can have a great impact on reducing emission. The carbon dioxide emissions from burning biomass do not increase if they are sustainably managed because trees have the ability to re sequester carbon dioxide that has been emitted into the atmosphere through energy production. Walker, Cardellichio, Gunn, Saah and Hagan (2013) found that within a 30 year time frame, biomass emissions will decrease from just over 10 carbon tonnes per year to 5 carbon tonnes per year due to the re sequestering of carbon. The carbon emission rate for biomass will continue to decrease and by the year 2100 will be approximately 2.5 carbon tonnes per year, while oil and coal will continue to emit 9 carbon tonnes per year (p.147).

The emissions that come from biomass is comparably a lot less severe than coal emissions that we currently have today. The emissions from combusting fossil fuels cause many threats to the environment and overall air quality. Fossil fuels account for nearly 70 percent of the nation’s sulfur dioxide emissions, 13 percent of the nitrogen oxide emissions, and 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions (“Air Emissions”, 2014). These emissions can cause many problems, such as smog and acid rain and climate change. Coal is the largest emitter of any fossil fuel, it emits 2,249 lbs/MWh of carbon dioxide, 13 lbs/MWh of sulfur dioxide, and 6 lbs/MWh of nitrogen oxides (“Air Emissions”, 2014). In addition to the totals given, there are additional emissions caused by extraction and transporting these materials to the site. This is because coal and oil are not readily available in Massachusetts.

Future Energy Needs

Biomass power plants can help us meet our future energy needs in Massachusetts. In order to help offset the energy lost from the closing of all coal power plants in the state by 2018 a variety of renewable sources will need to be supplemented. Massachusetts is covered by 60% wooded forests. Growth in these forests increases overtime because it occurs at a rate of  99.9 million cubic feet and annual removals average 52.3 million cubic feet (Berlik, Kittredge & Foster, 2002, pp. 11-12). This high growth rate will also aid in quick carbon sequestration.

In a study by Markowski-Lindsay et al. (2012) it is estimated that there is between 80,000 and 369,000 dry tons/year of available woody biomass in Massachusetts. This amount of biomass translates into about 1.4 trillion to 6.2 trillion BTUs/year which represents between 0.09% and 0.42% of all Massachusetts annual energy consumption (“Massachusetts State Profile and Energy Estimates”, 2012). While this may not seem like a significant amount it could potentially make up for as much as a quarter of the coal energy that Massachusetts consumed in 2012.  This higher end of this estimate could also produce more energy than the amount that was consumed by all other renewables combined in Massachusetts in 2012 (“Massachusetts State Profile and Energy Estimates”, 2012).


The building of new small-scale woody biomass plants in Massachusetts will improve the environmental impact associated with providing us with energy as we divest from fossil fuel use. A study done by Goerndt, Aguilar, and Skog (2013) determined that the best way to implement a local woody biomass system is to put the plant in an area where there is an appropriate spatial distribution of woody biomass that can be harvested sustainably and to use a highly efficient system so that the demand for woody biomass is not too high and people will not have to look elsewhere to get it. This alone will not motivate the government to invest in woody biomass.

The key to making woody biomass economically feasible is by building new plants in fairly rural areas where local people will be instrumental in continued maintenance of the plant, harvesting of the available woody biomass, and construction of the plant, taking advantage of local small business construction firms (Timmons, Damery, Allen & Petragalia, 2007, pp. 25-26). This will increase the local household income. Also, there would be budgets for every aspect of the plant to meet energy output requirements. Many of these new requirements will generate new business for local area firms (Timmons et al., 2007, pp. 25-26).

A good example of a successful woody biomass plant in rural Massachusetts is the GDF Suez Energy North America Inc. Pinetree Power Plant in Westminster Massachusetts (“Biomass Plants”, 2014). Westminster Massachusetts is a small wooded town with a local logging company called Anderson Logging and Lumber that helps provide sustainable wood. This power plant is able to produce 17 megawatts of energy a year for the town to utilize (“Biomass Plants”, 2014).

The cost to build a new plant would be about $3,000 to $4,000 per kW per year capacity of the plant (“Biomass For Electricity Generation”). It could also be beneficial to utilize the coal plants that recently shut down by retrofitting them for biomass which would cost $640 for every kW per year capacity that the plant has (Cuellar, 2012, p. 60).

Environmentalists may consider biomass an environmentally harmful energy source because it still releases carbon dioxide emissions. Though in some places woody biomass is seen to be carbon dioxide neutral, there are places that over consume biomass fuels, and this leads to deforestation (May-Tobin, 2014). This is true but if practiced sustainably, the amount of emissions released are much smaller and they can be re-sequestered over time as more trees grow.

People might argue that this will cost a lot of money so why should we make a change. We should change due to the fact that coal and oil reserves are in a decline (“An Inconvenient Truth”, 2006). As our fossil fuel reserves start declining, the price for oil will eventually start to go up and so will the cost of electricity and gasoline. Alternative sources of energy such as woody biomass, which re-sequesters its carbon emissions, will be a better investment in the long run compared to fossil fuels.

Massachusetts has slowly been increasing dependence on renewable energy sources to get away from using fossil fuels. This is going to be extremely important as we run out of these fuels and the effects of climate change are becoming more prevalent. Although utilizing renewable energy is clearly desirable there are economic and physical factors that prevent this from happening easily in every part of Massachusetts. Some rural parts of the state do not have access to many open areas for solar panels or have enough wind for turbines but they do have an abundance of forest land available. This is why utilizing woody biomass in these areas is a great way to reduce emissions in a slightly less traditional way. By keeping these plants small it helps make them more sustainable and cost effective because it stimulates the local economy and allows people to produce and use all of the energy locally. With the growing movement of switching to renewable energy sources, there will be less of a focus on coal, which will allow for less emissions over time. Biomass energy is an important addition to Massachusetts’ overall production of energy in order to create a cleaner and healthier future. 


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