By ZACH GEIGER
ALTOONA, Pa. - An "explosion" of biomass burner production as part of a state-funded program on renewable energy may be contributing to increased air pollution across the state, according to a recent report.
Biomass burners, which use different types of wood fuel to generate heat, are not regulated in the same way as oil and gas boilers they are designed to replace, said Mary Booth, director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity.
Booth's report, funded by the Heinz Endowment, claims biomass burners emit hazardous particles into the air and could pose a significant health risk. Regulations on biomass burners are lax when compared to other heating sources, Booth said.
Officials with the state Department of Environmental Protection, which closely monitors and regulates biomass burners, disagrees with the findings, saying the report is off-base with the reality of regulations.
"DEP's permitting and oversight of air quality issues is effective and robust; and from what we have read so far, this report does not do justice to properly characterizing the emission controls on these facilities that protect the environment and public health," spokesman Kevin Sunday said.
Many of the current biomass burners are small, institutional burners used primarily for heat and not electricity, Booth said.
State and federal grants totaling more than $70 million have been used to fund biomass burners in the commonwealth, according to the report.
Many of those institutions are schools that utilize the burners for heat, Booth said.
Northern Bedford County School District was approved for a $746,192 grant from the Alternative and Clean Energy Program, according to the report. The district installed a biomass burner ahead of the 2012-13 school year as part of the district's overall building improvement project, said Scott King, district superintendent.
The district will save about $180,000 a year in heating oil costs by operating the biomass burner, King said.
"That biomass burner is actually heating all three buildings," King said.
The school uses oil heating only as a backup, he said.
"It's environmentally friendly because you're reducing the greenhouse gas emissions, because you're not burning the oil," King said. "We are reducing our carbon footprint, which we feel great about."
The report also identified Glendale School District as the recipient of a $350,000 grant through the Energy Harvest and Alternative Fuels Incentive grant program for proposed biomass burners.
However, the proposed biomass burner was never installed at Glendale, Superintendent Arnold Nadonley said. He said the district turned down the grant in 2009, citing funding concerns and a lack of need for the burner.
"The fact was, our heating system is relatively new," he said.
Health concerns related to biomass burners were not discussed by district officials, Nadonley said.
Booth said schools that use biomass burners could put children and employees at risk because of pollutants they release.
The state does not require air quality monitoring near institutions that use burners, despite evidence of increased pollution, she said.
"They're really quite dirty, especially the ones in Pennsylvania," Booth said, adding the notion of "clean" energy from biomass burners is misleading. "Just because you can't see that particulate matter doesn't mean it's not being emitted."
But existing regulations carefully monitor pollution from biomass burners, DEP officials said.
"Thanks to a fair and predictable permitting program, DEP has made significant and documented improvements in air quality statewide," Sunday said. "Pennsylvania's oversight of the burning of biomass, a renewable fuel, is a major part of this. When these facilities are permitted, DEP determines the best available technology to be installed, so the contention that these facilities need 'state-of-the-art controls' is deliberately misguided."
Although biomass burners are an alternative form of energy, the state should not replace fossil fuels with fuel sources known to pollute more than oil and gas burners, Booth said.
Despite the DEP's claims, the industry needs stricter regulations, she said.
"Ideally, from an emissions standpoint,the DEP would require these things to be at least as clean as an oil burner," Booth said. "They should retrofit them with emissions controls."