Are Massachusetts’ New Biomass Regulations Strong Enough?

– by Josh Schlossberg, July 23, 2012, The Biomass Monitor

The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources finally released its long awaited and much delayed biomass regulations, garnering both cautious praise and criticism from grassroots biomass opponents. The regulations have disqualified stand-alone biomass power facilities from receiving Renewable Energy Certificates—a ratepayer subsidy under the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard—though incentives are still available for combined heat and power facilities operating at 50% efficiency, that burn whole trees along with logging “residues.”

The regulations came as a response to a mounting wave of public opposition to biomass incinerator proposals across western Massachusetts and the state-funded “Manomet study,” which debunked biomass carbon neutrality claims. Anti-biomass resistance began in 2008 with the formation of citizen groups in Russell, Greenfield, and Springfield, expanding into a statewide campaign in 2009. Grassroots efforts included citizen pressure on elected officials, a public education and media campaign, a successful anti-biomass ballot measure in Greenfield, and a statewide petition drive to end all biomass subsidies.

The petition, organized by the Stop Spewing Carbon Campaign in 2009 and 2010, sought to remove subsidies for both stand-alone electric and combined heat and power biomass facilities, by qualifying for the 2010 Massachusetts ballot. Though the petition received the 120,000 signatures needed to make the ballot, the Campaign chose to allow the state government to enact its own regulations in good faith, and did not submit the signatures. While Massachusetts’ large environmental groups and some biomass opponents did not support the petition, the massive statewide grassroots effort is widely credited for applying the political pressure needed to ensure government action.

“Massachusetts has taken a big step forward in limiting ratepayer subsidies under the Renewable Portfolio Standard for industrial-scale wood burning biomass incinerators,” said Meg Sheehan, chair of the Stop Spewing Carbon Campaign and the Biomass Accountability Project. “Much remains to be done, however, to ensure that the regulations are enforced and that we don’t face the proliferation of small scale incinerators that pose just as much of a threat to forests, health, and climate change.”

The final proposed Massachusetts regulations require that new biomass facilities operate at 60% efficiency to receive full credits under the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard and 50% efficiency to receive ½ credits. The regulations would also provide ½ credits for facilities operating at 40% efficiency that qualify “as advancement of biomass conversion generation.” Biomass power plants operate at roughly 25% efficiency—in comparison, residential wood stoves operate at 60% or higher. Further, biomass facilities qualifying for Renewable Energy Credits must “yield at least a 50 per cent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions per unit of useful energy” over a 20 year life cycle in comparison to a new natural gas facility.

Regulations still allow whole trees to be cut and burned in biomass facilities, while making the distinction between the removal of whole trees and high-nutrient tree tops and branches, referred to as logging “residues.” Varying amounts of this organic material will be required to be left onsite, depending on soil quality, with “bad” soils requiring all “residues” to be left and “good” soils only 25 percent. The maximum amount of leftover organic material that can be removed from any site would be “30% of the weight of the harvest products removed.”

Chris Matera, founder of Massachusetts Forest Watch, and a key player in the anti-biomass movement in Massachusetts and across New England, calls the new regulations “counterproductive and unenforceable.” Matera believes that “there should not be any subsidies for tree-fueled biomass energy, whether it is done efficiently, or inefficiently, because in both cases it will increase pollution, deforestation and carbon emissions.” Matera is skeptical of the regulations’ claims of forest monitoring, and states that the “air pollution rate [for biomass] is worse than fossil fuels, and carbon accounting is ripe for manipulation.”

“These regulations are not praiseworthy,” said Jana Chicoine, spokesperson for Concerned Citizens of Russell, MA. Chicoine was among the first to oppose biomass in Massachusetts, fighting against a proposed biomass facility in her neighborhood and helping organize the statewide petition drive. “These regulations do nothing at all to change the basics—the essential factors that caused the Massachusetts Medical Society, the American Lung Association, and many river protection and environmental groups to oppose” biomass facilities in Massachusetts.

“We think burning trees for electricity is a bad idea,” said Janet Sinclair, spokesperson for Concerned Citizens of Franklin County, instrumental in organizing Greenfield’s anti-biomass ballot measure and the statewide petition. “I find it to be terrible public policy to reward biomass with the public’s money at 50% efficiency. A wood stove does better than that.” Instead of biomass energy, Sinclair would rather see taxpayers’ money spent on energy efficiency measures.

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