Lawmakers are trying to keep the Black River power plant at Fort Drum from closing by changing the state’s definition of renewable energy to include the burning of wood, known as forest biomass. This process has been scientifically proven to pollute more than coal.
Environmental groups were rattled last month by the introduction of legislation that seeks to change how the state’s 2019 Climate Act accounts for greenhouse gas emissions. But the new bill, sponsored by democratic State Sen. Kevin Parker, also sneaks in another clause that many overlooked.
It suggests changing the definition of what is considered renewable energy under the state law to include electricity produced from burning wastes like cow manure—a process known as “anaerobic digestion”—and wood, a process known as “forest bio power” or forest biomass.
The inclusion of forest biomass in particular concerns the environmental community because it’s been scientifically proven to produce elevated quantities of carbon emissions. Adding it to the state’s definition of renewable energy, environmentalists say, would be a significant step back in phasing out its use in New York, and would set a bad example for the rest of the country.
And the language in the bill includes a curious caveat: the new definition would apply only to power plants producing forest biomass “as of December 31, 2022.” Environmentalists who spoke to City Limits said the time frame signals a move from lawmakers to stop the shutdown of ReEnergy Black River, the last biomass power plant with a government contract left standing in New York.
Located near the northern border upstate inside a U.S Army base known as Fort Drum, the plant supplies electricity to the base and is marketed as “the largest renewable energy project in the history of the U.S. Army.” Black River relies on a contract with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) to function, but the 20-year agreement expires in May and the state has shown no intent in renewing it.
“We were concerned about the Fort Drum plant. And we hope that we might get more attention towards it, and get folks to negotiate and figure out what we can do [to keep it open],” Parker told City Limits.
A few months prior, Parker and two Republican Senate colleagues sponsored another bill that seeks to recognize the facility as “a renewable energy system,” and extend its contract with NYSERDA. The plant officially stopped running on March 31 and is now engaged in a series of lay-off activities, according to ReEnergy Holdings, the company that owns the facility.
Meanwhile U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a senior member of the Armed Services Committee and an avid supporter of the plant since its opening in 2014, reportedly spoke to leaders in the state Assembly and Senate to keep Fort Drum’s plant from closing earlier this year.
“Elected officials have been lobbying the state to provide funding for this facility and keep it operating using very disturbing language that claims forest biomass is clean [energy],” said Laura Haight, U.S. policy director at Partnership for Policy Integrity (PFPI), an environmental organization that opposes efforts to keep the plant alive.
“Burning [forest] biomass is not carbon neutral. That’s been completely debunked by science for over a decade,” Haight added.
The green label that yields profits
The ReEnergy Black River plant in Fort Drum stayed in business by repurposing “forest residue” from sawmills in the area and burning them to produce energy. The electricity generated from that process powered the military base at Fort Drum thanks to a contract the company signed with the U.S Department of Defense.
The facility has 60 megawatts of generation capacity and describes itself as “a catalyst for sustainable economic growth in New York’s North Country and Central New York.”
But forest biomass production is being phased out in New York because it has been scientifically proven to pollute more than coal, a fossil fuel that releases toxic substances including the greenhouse gasses responsible for climate change.
Black River’s biomass power plant is permitted to emit more than 2,500 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt an hour. Meanwhile, coal plants, which New York has phased out due to their climate impacts, emit 2,180 pounds of carbon per megawatt an hour.
Despite that, the plant at Fort Drum’s biggest source of revenue came from calling itself a clean energy source. ReEnergy Holdings told City Limits that it didn’t make money from selling its electricity to Fort Drum, but turned a profit instead by selling clean energy certificates known as Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) to the state environmental agency, NYSERDA.
A REC is a certificate that represents one megawatt-hour of renewable energy delivered to the electricity grid. These credits are purchased by NYSERDA and resold to companies that emit greenhouse gasses so they can get exemptions from polluting in exchange for delivering green energy to the grid.
But since the Climate Act passed in 2019 and excluded biomass from its definition of “renewable energy,” NYSERDA can’t keep doing business with the company.
The agency has kept six contracts with biomass facilities across the Empire State since 2004, but five of those agreements have already expired, according to NYSERDA. The contract with the ReEnergy Black River plant in Fort Drum is the only contract still active, and the agency says it too will cease in May.
Both of the bills that Sen. Parker sponsored would allow the company to continue selling RECs by changing the definition of renewable energy to include biomass production. But only one included language to extend the contract with NYSERDA “until November 30, 2034.” This bill was introduced in last year’s legislative session and was put back on the table in February of this year, according to Sarah Boggess, ReEnergy Holdings vice president of external affairs.
The company hopes the legislation can still turn things around.
“[The February bill] contains the type of language necessary to save the facility at this very late stage,” Boggess told City Limits. “There’s a brief window of time that a restart could potentially be possible if the state were to extend the facility’s contract with NYSERDA. But that window is a matter of days.”
The company also sent a petition to the New York Public Service Commission in July of last year “to commence a proceeding to fairly and accurately compensate” the Fort Drum plant with government subsidies, or it would be forced to “cease operations.”
Meanwhile, 21 environmental groups signed a letter reviewed by City Limits opposing the allocation of state funds to keep the Black River Plant from closing, claiming it will cost taxpayers money “without advancing compliance with New York’s renewable energy or climate mandates.”
But Boggess said the Fort Drum plant’s pending shutdown has been “heartbreaking” for the company. Not only did ReEnergy Holdings spend $50 million to convert the site from coal into a wood burning power plant when it was purchased in 2011, but “it supports so many jobs and has provided benefits to Fort Drum,” Boggess added.
The plant employed 30 people and claims to support “more than 300 direct and indirect jobs” as it buys residue from logging companies and mills in the region to fuel its operations. Jefferson County, where the plant is located, is 26th of 62 in poverty among New York State counties, according to a recent assessment by the county’s Community Action Planning Council.
“These are real people whose lives are going to be upended by the closure of this plant. And I think the state and the company has a responsibility to help with that transition and provide new job opportunities,” said Haight, the policy director of PFPI.
The group is among those denouncing Black River’s attempt to change the definition of renewable energy in the Climate Law, which sets strict targets New York must hit in lowering its greenhouse emissions over the next few decades.
“Instead they opted for a bailout that would change an entire [climate] law and produce a major step backward in a nation-leading definition of renewable energy,” Haight added.
Debunking the carbon neutral myth
Back in 2016, the United Nations cited biomass in its definition of renewable energy, but over the past decade, scientists say they have succeeded in debunking the myth that burning forest residue to produce energy can be sustainable.
The forest biomass industry has thrived in the U.S. by selling the idea that their product is carbon neutral—in other words, it doesn’t contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. They argue that by replanting the wood that they burn, new trees grow back and absorb the carbon, canceling out what was released during the burning process in the first place.
“That carbon is getting [absorbed] by regrowing the forest. And the forest is growing faster than its being removed,” said John Bartow, executive director of Empire State Forest Products Association, a trade organization that has worked closely with ReEnergy Holdings.
“As long as growth exceeds mortality and harvest, the use of wood to produce energy will yield us the greatest climate benefit that is out there. Because you’re using a renewable energy resource,” Bartow added.
But Dr. Robert Howarth, a renowned biochemist who helped put together New York’s Climate Act, says the forest isn’t growing fast enough to replenish all of the carbon dioxide that is being released and that “it may take 100 years for the forest to regrow” and offset those emissions.
After years of deliberating on what fuels should be considered renewable under the Climate Act’s definition, forest biomass “didn’t make the cut,” Haworth told City Limits.
“They don’t reduce [carbon emissions] fast enough and so what we really need to focus on is using energy produced from wind, solar, hydro power to produce electricity that runs heat pumps and homes and electric vehicles on our roads,” Haworth explained.
Today, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change does not “automatically consider or assume biomass used for energy [as] ‘carbon neutral,’ even in cases where the biomass is thought to be produced sustainably.”
Scientists who have contributed to debunking the carbon neutral theory say the biomass industry fails to account for greenhouse gas emissions that are released leading up to the wood’s combustion at a power plant. Harvesting, transporting and processing the material before it arrives at the plant requires the use of heavy machinery like trucks, which typically run on fossil fuels that emit large amounts of carbon.
A study produced by the environmental advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) examined each step in the forest biomass supply chain. It looked at a specific scenario in which forest residue collected in the U.S. is converted into wood chips and shipped to the U.K to be burned for energy. The analysis revealed that more than one third of carbon emissions in the process occured off-site, rather than at the power station.
“No matter where you’re burning the wood, there will be emissions in addition to the emissions released by the [smoke]stack. So when you don’t account for those emissions, you are missing a major part of the climate impact,” said Sami Yassa, a senior scientist at NRDC who worked on the study.
Just like burning fossil fuels, burning wood produces a series of “air pollutants that cause an array of health harms, from asthma attacks to cancer to heart attacks, resulting in hospital visits and premature deaths,” the study added.
For Yassa, adding forest biomass back into the definition of renewable energy in New York State will signify a step backwards in phasing out the practice of burning wood for energy nationwide. There are 135 biomass power plants operating across the country that reported burning solid wood in 2022, according to data shared by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
“If the U.S. Congress, or individual states attempt to erroneously claim that forest biomass is carbon neutral, It will threaten to set back our efforts to reduce emissions and address climate change. It could severely erode the Biden administration’s goals to achieve emissions reductions in the short term,” Yassa said.
Parker’s bill, which seeks to change how the Climate Act accounts for greenhouse gas emissions and tweaks the definition of Renewable Energy to include biomass, came up in recent budget negotiations with Gov. Kathy Hochul, but the governor has since backtracked on her support for measures cited in the bill.
Lawmakers are continuing to negotiate the state spending plan, which is now more than a week late.
“We are working closely with the legislature to secure a state budget that includes the most impactful climate initiatives in recent history. All of this will be done against the backdrop of affordability, so that we’re reaching our climate goals while protecting hardworking New Yorkers,” Hochul said in an emailed statement.