Why Does the Biomass Renewable Portfolio Standard Matter?

It has been eight years since Massachusetts enacted regulations that restricted biomass energy to small, high-efficiency plants and ended subsidies to highly polluting wood-burners in other states. But the issue has not gone away. In fact, more than 50% of the "renewable energy” in New England’s power grid last year came from biomass and garbage burning. On the contrary: the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER) is now seeking to roll back these protections in our state.

The Massachusetts Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard (RPS) requires retail electricity suppliers obtain a percentage of the electricity they serve to their customers from qualifying renewable energy facilities. The changes proposed by DOER would add biomass to the list of qualifying facilities, which in turn would make them eligible for state subsidies.

Last June, a Springfield hearing on these proposed changes drew so many protestors that the hearing had to be moved to a larger venue. Why? Because precisely such a wood-burning plant has been proposed for an East Springfield site by Palmer Renewable Energy. Indeed, this plant has completed the permitting process. So the only reason it has not gone forward is because without the subsidies that are currently disallowed by the state's Renewable Portfolio Standard (estimated at $10-14M per year of taxpayer money), the proposed plant will not be profitable.

Opponents speaking at the June hearing opposed the plant because it would emit small particulates, increasing the already high pollution levels in the surrounding community. Springfield's asthma rate is more than double the national average, and in Holyoke, there are three times more people with asthma than the national average. And the state classifies the population near the proposed biomass plant as an environmental justice community.

In addition to a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), Massachusetts also has an Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard (APS). The RPS is designed to increase the use of renewable energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector, while the APS is intended to achieve similar results for the heating sector. Initially established in 2009, the APS was later amended to include include wood boilers and furnaces (biomass) as well as steam-energy producing garbage incinerators among the forms of energy eligible for state subsidies.

Under the Baker administration, DOER is seeking to correct the discrepancy between the two standards by introducing similar clauses into the RPS. Last year's hearings, including the one in Springfield, were part of its rule-making process. The rule has not yet been finalized, although the initial comment period ended last July.

The alternative path was taken in H.853, sponsored by Rep. Denise Provost. H.853 would remove wood burning and garbage incineration from the list of technologies eligible for renewable heating incentives in the APS due to their elevated carbon emissions and harmful air pollution. That bill languished for several months in the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture, despite prodding from activists. On February 13 (too late for action this year), it was reported out together with another bill, H.897, dealing with more general forest protection issues, and attached to a new bill, H.4415, establishing a commission to study forest management. The commission's report is due by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the Palmer plant in East Springfield is unlikely to break ground this year, knowing that those subsidies may not be around much longer. Especially if we make it clear that yes, we are ready to get down in the weeds. Some things are too important to be left to the experts.

For more information, see the resources and links in an article by Bill McKibben on the web site of the Partnership for Policy Integrity. PFPI is a Pelham-based organization that seeks to promote sound energy policy and to help citizens enact science-based policies that protect air, water, ecosystems, and the climate. Its current work focuses on biomass energy and on oil and gas extraction.

The energy committee of LWV Amherst also compiled its own report on biomass in 2011.