Massachusetts tops New England in air pollution from wood burning

Group calls for Moratorium on Massachusetts Programs that Incentivize Biomass
Massachusetts has more air pollution from wood combustion than any other state in New England, according to an analysis of EPA data prepared by the Partnership for Policy Integrity (PFPI), a nonprofit research and advocacy group that focuses on clean energy policy.

The new findings are being released as the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER) is advancing a program to accelerate the use of forest biomass for residential, commercial, and industrial heating, including in schools. PFPI is calling on the Baker Administration to halt these proposals due to public health and environmental concerns.

Wood-burning is a major source of fine particulate emissions, a serious health hazard. Fine particles (particulate matter of 2.5 microns diameter or smaller, known as PM2.5) are easily inhaled and can lodge deep in the lungs, where they can cause chronic heart and lung disease and trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks, and premature death.  Wood boilers are also major contributors of greenhouse gas emissions.

PFPI mapped the most recent data available from the EPA’s National Emissions Inventory (NEI) on PM2.5 emissions from wood heating (woodburning stoves, fireplaces, and furnaces, including outdoor wood boilers) (see Figure 1). The NEI, a comprehensive and detailed set of air pollution data, was updated with the 2014 emissions data in April 2017. These data indicate that:

  • Worcester County had the greatest county-level emissions in the Northeast from residential woodburning, with 1,898 tons of PM2.5 released into the air in 2014. Worcester was the eighth highest county in the entire nation for residential wood-burning pollution.
  • Three counties (Hampden, Essex, and Middlesex) had between 700 and 1,000 tons of PM2.5 emissions in 2014 from residential wood burning.

PFPI also analyzed the relative contribution of biomass combustion to PM2.5 emissions in Massachusetts and surrounding states.  Among the key findings:

  • In New York and New England, wood-burning is overwhelmingly the largest source of PM2.5 emissions from heating homes and commercial enterprises, ranging from 82% to 98% per state.
  • In Massachusetts, biomass combustion accounted for 83% of all PM2.5 emissions from heating (residential and commercial/industrial) and a quarter of the state’s total PM2.5 emissions (see Figure 2).

“Why is the State of Massachusetts offering incentives for wood heating when wood burners are already a major source of air pollution in Massachusetts?” asked Dr. Mary Booth, PFPI’s director. “Public funds should not be used to support so-called ‘clean’ energy technologies that actually make air pollution and climate change worse.”

“The effects of particulate pollution on respiratory and cardiac health are well-documented,” said Dr. William Copeland, a pediatrician who practices in Greenfield, MA. “Massachusetts has an unfortunate combination of high childhood asthma prevalence and many days when air pollution exceeds EPA’s health standards. Permitting additional sources of emissions would be a mistake.”

PFPI and other organizations will be testifying at a public hearing next week on new regulations proposed by the MA Department of Energy Resources (DOER) that would allow wood boilers to be eligible for clean energy credits through the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard (APS). The hearing will take place Monday, August 7, from 10-12, at Holyoke Community College.

PFPI also sent a letter today to the MA Clean Energy Center (CEC) urging the agency to remove wood burning from its RFP for the HeatSmart Massachusetts program. The HeatSmart program is intended to encourage “clean heating and cooling technologies” but the list of eligible technologies includes biomass heating.

In the letter to CEC Chief Executive Officer Stephen Pike, Dr. Booth wrote: “Massachusetts has already given away millions of dollars of public money to promote wood heat and wood pellets. It is time for the Commonwealth, and all of its agencies, to stop promoting wood heat as a ‘clean fuel’ and focus on technologies that actually reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.”


Partnership for Policy Integrity