Greenfield Recorder, 08/18/2012, Page A01 By RICHIE DAVIS
State Finalizes Biomass Regulations
Tough new Massachusetts regulations for wood-burning generating plants were issued Friday, setting a high bar for developers who need renewable energy credits to build plants like one proposed for Greenfield.
The new set of regulations, issued after two years of evaluation, public comment including a complete revision of 2011 draft rules, applies to all plants that depend on Massachusetts’ tough RPS program. The program in turn sets a minimum for all retail electricity suppliers in the state for how much of their power is generated from eligible renewable sources. The Renewable Energy Credits are then used to attract private financing for the plants, which have been touted as renewable alternatives to facilities that burn coal or natural gas to produce electricity.
But after an outcry of public criticism from environmental groups, including the threat of a ballot initiative calling for a ban on renewable energy credits for biomass, the state sponsored a study of the long-term greenhouse gas implications by Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences in 2010. The study concluded the wood-fired generating plants release more heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per unit of energy than oil, coal, or natural gas — and that the greenhouse gases take a long time for forests to absorb.
The new regulations could affect as many as 20 plants around New England and New York hoping to claim the Massachusetts renewable energy credit for selling electricity in Massachusetts, according to a spokesman for the trade group Biomass Power Association. Among those affected would be the 47megawatt wood-fired plant planned for Greenfield by Madera Energy Inc. of Cambridge. Neither Madera Principal Matthew Wolfe nor Massachusetts Forest Alliance Executive Director Jeffrey Hutchins could be reached for comment Friday.
Mary Booth, director of Pelham-based Partnership for Policy Integrity, said she was “very pleased” with the new regulations, which grew in part out of efforts by environmental advocates like herself for more rigorous scientific accounting of the carbon produced by the burning the large plants proposed. “It doesn’t prevent them from building the plants,” she said. “It still incentivizes a pretty carbon-intensive technology, but it should shut the door on these big, standalone direct-fired plants that produce electricity but don’t capture any of the heat.” The 50 percent efficiency required is about twice the efficiency level of electricity-generating biomass plants like the ones planned for Greenfield and Russell, she said. “When you have a limited resource you want to use, you should incentivize the highest and best use. The average coal-burning plant in this country is 33 percent efficient, so you’re setting the bar a little higher for this renewable technology.”
Ben Wright, a spokesman for the advocacy organization Environment Massachusetts, said he was pleased overall with the new regulations, although he said the 50 percent efficiency pales in comparison with biomass plants in Europe that achieve efficiencies of 60 to 80 percent. Wright raised concerns about a special category of biomass plants “that demonstrate advancements in the conversion of biomass to energy, be it through advances in the conversion design, reductions in pollution emissions, or through the use of refined biomass fuels,” that would be eligible for half credits if they achieve efficiencies of even 40 percent. “It seems crazy to me that Massachusetts is going to allow new technologies that operate at a lower efficiency to receive subsidies,” said Wright. But he was also pleased with a section that requires at least 25 percent of harvested treetops and limbs to remain in the forest to replenish soil nutrients and protect the resiliency of the forest.
The requirement that there be a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gases over 20 years, compared to a gas-fired generating plant, will be one of the dicier issues to sort out down the line, he said. “It’s easy to say a 50 percent reduction, but you have so many different ways of calculating these, that you’re going to get the industry people saying it’s carbon neutral, and you’ll get the super forest activists saying it’s worse than coal — and you’re going to know the truth is somewhere in the middle. This is exactly the kind of tough question we’re going to have to wrestle with as we move toward a world where we know we need to be emitting less greenhouse gases. It’s good to see the administration out front in the country tackling these hard questions.”
Williamstown lawyer Meg Sheehan, who has represented biomass opponents, said, “While the regulations are not a silver bullet and could have been stricter, they are another nail in the coffin of this dirty industry.” Sheehan added, “We believe the inefficient, polluting biomass incinerators that have been proposed for Greenfield, Russell, Springfield and Pittsfield will not be able to meet the requirements of the new regulations, making them ineligible for incentives under the state Renewable Portfolio Standard. Combine this with the low price of natural gas and dwindling federal subsidies … and building a biomass incinerator today would be a foolhardy endeavor.
Janet Sinclair, a spokesperson for Concerned Citizens of Franklin County, which has worked for three years to stop the Greenfield plant said, “We know that these regulations represent a step in the right direction. But at the end of the day, why are we rewarding people for burning trees for electricity? Energy efficiency costs a third as much as creating new energy sources.”