A law on wood-fired power plants signed in April in Maine is drawing both praise for its potential for economic and environmental benefits as well as criticism from climate activists who are skeptical about whether the legislation will in fact cut CO2 emissions.
The law established a program for projects to burn wood for electricity and capture the heat on-site. The projects will benefit forestry and forest product businesses.
“It’s renewable energy that is produced by local loggers and providing jobs for our local community,” said James Robbins, president of Robbins Lumber in Searsport, Maine.
Supporters of the legislation say it will support struggling economic sectors while helping reach Maine’s goal to cut emissions by 50% by 2050.
Climate activists, however, say they doubt wood can be efficient as a fuel and worry such projects could actually increase CO2 emissions.
“This is really an economic development tool to help prop up mills and not a climate solution,” said Greg Cunningham, director of the clean energy and climate change program at the Conservation Law Foundation.
Proponents of the law say that if not put to use, the wood would be left to decompose and release CO2. They also argue that heat and power plants, like the proposed ones in Maine, can use weaker trees and thus help larger trees grow and capture more carbon. Moreover, as new trees continually grow, the carbon released by burning wood is recaptured naturally.
Opponents, on the other hand, say that burning wood produces more CO2 per heat unit than burning natural gas or heating oil and that forests’ capacity to sequester carbon cannot offset these emissions.
Theoretically, heat and power plants can reach a 75% to 90% efficiency but many variables can affect this number. One such factor is the moisture level of the fuel, and wood with more water burns less efficiently. Residual wood from harvesting usually has higher moisture levels than wood from lumber processing.