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Mass. Backtracks On Renewable Energy Subsidies For Wood-Burning Biomass Plants

Waste wood from a logging operation is chopped up into "chips"  to be burned in a biomass facility. (Annie Ropeik, NHPR)
Waste wood from a logging operation is chopped up into "chips" to be burned in a biomass facility. (Annie Ropeik, NHPR)

The Baker administration says it no longer stands behind a plan it proposed last December to change state regulations to allow some wood-burning biomass power plants to qualify for renewable energy subsidies. The move follows a loud outcry from environmental groups, public health experts and several prominent politicians who opposed the planned changes.

The state's initial recommendations drew widespread criticism because they would have allowed a proposed biomass facility in the heart of an environmental justice community in Springfield to qualify for lucrative rate-payer subsidies. In walking back that proposal, the administration dealt a blow to that project while also effectively preventing any similar facilities from being built in the state in the future.

In a statement, Springfield City Councilor Jesse Lederman celebrated the news and said it was “the direct result of grassroots action by residents, activists, and local elected officials both here in Springfield and across the state.”

Attorney General Maura Healey also applauded the change from DOER, writing in a statement that “this is great news for our state and the type of consideration that should inform all energy policy for our communities."  She added that "science demonstrates that biomass energy is bad for our residents and runs counter to the [state's] aggressive climate goals.”

The changes announced Friday have to do with the state's Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard (RPS), a list of rules detailing which power sources qualify as “renewable” and under what circumstances power plants can receive renewable energy subsidies.

The Department of Energy Resources (DOER) says its new proposal will do two important things. First, it will mandate that any new biomass facility in the state meet a high efficiency standard in order to qualify for subsidies. Under the previous proposal, DOER would waive these efficiency standards for facilities that used “non-forest derived material” such as sawdust, utility trimmings and other waste wood.

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Second, the proposal will prohibit any biomass plant located within fives miles of environmental justice community from being eligible for RPS subsidies.

At a press conference Friday morning, state Energy and Environmental Affairs secretary Kathleen Theoharides said that the changes are designed to build upon the environmental justice provisions recently signed into law by Governor Charlie Baker.

“The Department of Energy Resources received overwhelming feedback from stakeholders, especially from residents in environmental justice communities. They spoke clearly and the administration heard their concerns about the negative impact these regulations could have for environmental justice communities,” Theoharides said.

A 2019 protest in Springfield against the Palmer Plant. (Courtesy of Rene Theberge)
A 2019 protest in Springfield against the Palmer Plant. (Courtesy of Rene Theberge)

The revised changes to the RPS announced Friday don’t completely eliminate the possibility of wood-burning biomass plants from receiving subsidies, but they do make it nearly impossible for low efficiency, electricity-only facilities — like the one proposed for Springfield — to qualify.

Creating electricity from biomass is not very efficient; wood isn’t a dense energy source, and burning it creates a lot of “thermal waste” — heat that can't be used to turn a turbine. The Palmer facility, despite being state of the art, would only reach an efficiency of about 29%, with most of its energy wasted.

If DOER’s proposals becomes state regulation, a biomass facility will have to reach 60% efficiency to qualify for the RPS. There are at least two biomass facilities in the state that do reach that standard, but they are small and not primarily used to generate electricity — these so-called combined heat and power plants use the thermal waste from combustion to heat a building.

“On biomass itself, there is still a role for it in our energy transition if we are appropriately considering the types of feedstock we're using ... and making sure that sustainable forestry is a guiding part of this,” Theoharides said, adding that the state does not view biomass as a carbon-neutral source of power.

The entrance to Palmer Paving Corporation's site in Springfield where the Palmer Renewable Energy Company plans to build a wood-burning biomass plant. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
The entrance to Palmer Paving Corporation's site in Springfield where the Palmer Renewable Energy Company plans to build a wood-burning biomass plant. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The announcement from DOER comes two weeks after the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) revoked a key air quality permit for the proposed biomass plant in Springfield.

The proposed Palmer Renewable Energy Facility would be the state’s only large-scale biomass plant. Producing about 35 megawatts of power, it would burn 1,200 tons of wood per day in a city the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America has ranked the “Asthma Capital” of the country.

Prior to the state’s decision to rescind the plant’s air permit, the facility had been fully permitted for years. But experts say it never broke ground because under current state regulations, the facility wouldn’t have qualified for subsidies, and therefore wouldn’t have been profitable. Given its location in an environmental justice community, its low efficiency standards and the state's new environmental justice laws, DOER's new proposal almost certainly ensures that the plant will never be built.

The publication of the proposal kick-starts a 30-day public comment period. After that, the agency will formally submit the proposal to the state legislature, which has 30 days to review the changes and make recommendations.

This article was originally published on April 16, 2021.

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Miriam Wasser Twitter Reporter, EarthWhile
Miriam Wasser is a reporter for WBUR's environmental vertical.

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