Massachusetts is once again revisiting wood-burning biomass power regulations, and the public, it seems, is not pleased with the plan.
The state’s Department of Energy Resources held a virtual hearing on Tuesday to get feedback on a proposal to change which biomass plants qualify for lucrative renewable energy subsidies, and how the state tracks and verifies the type of wood these plants burn. And for about two hours, the vast majority of speakers implored the department to leave the regulations alone.
"Whether it’s gas, oil or wood, burning stuff for energy emits carbon dioxide and pollutants into the atmosphere, and that has harmful consequences," said Mireille Bejjani of the nonprofit Community Action Works.
"Biomass is not a climate solution. It's a climate problem," said Johannes Epke, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation.
“It is frankly beyond my comprehension how Massachusetts can justify allowing biomass electric-generation plants to be incentivized," said Susan Pike of Montague. "These are incentives that ratepayers contribute to in order to support clean renewable energy development."
If you’re thinking, “Wait, didn’t the state try to update the rules for biomass last year?" you're not mistaken. The department was supposed to finalize the regulatory changes last fall, but for technical and administrative reasons, it didn't happen. So now the department is redoing the process — public hearings and comment period, included.
While feedback submitted last year will roll over, it’s important to note that the proposal itself has changed. Specifically, the state is walking back the environmental justice protections it suggested last year.
It's been a while since biomass was in the news, and to really understand what the state is proposing now, you have to understand how these rules came into effect. If you want to dive deep into biomass, check out our explainer from 2020.
If you just want the CliffsNotes, what you need to know is that biomass power is controversial. Supporters say it's "green" and "renewable," but burning wood for electricity is relatively inefficient and releases a lot of planet-warming greenhouse gases. In fact, a megawatt of electricity produced by burning wood releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than a megawatt generated from coal.
In 2019, the Department of Energy Resources under Gov. Charlie Baker proposed "updating" Massachusetts' strict biomass rules to make it easier for some older and less efficient plants to get clean energy subsidies. While the administration said it would be good for the state's climate goals, environmental groups like the Conservation Law Foundation and Partnership for Policy Integrity, as well as Attorney General Maura Healey and prominent climate scientists came out against the changes.
Across the state, local activists were also worried that it would revive plans for a biomass facility in Springfield. The plant, which was on pause but slated for construction in an environmental justice community, would qualify for renewable energy subsidies if the regulatory changes went into effect.
New environmental justice safeguards
After several months of intense pushback, the department revised its proposal so that no biomass plant located within a 5-mile radius of an environmental justice community could get clean energy subsidies. It was a big win for folks in Springfield since it dealt a big blow to the proposed plant's finances.
Fast forward to now, though, and the Department of Energy Resources is once again changing the proposal. In the latest version of the regulatory update, only new biomass facilities located near environmental justice communities are ineligible for subsidies. In other words, any plant built before Jan. 1, 2022 is exempt.
"In ruling that no biomass within 5 miles of an environmental justice community could qualify for [clean energy] subsidies, DOER sent a clear message: biomass is a polluting and unhealthy source of energy that should not further impact overburdened communities," Bejjani said. "So why are we then aiming to give biomass in other state clean energy dollars? Massachusetts ratepayers don’t want our clean energy dollars subsidizing pollution here or anywhere."
Laura Haight from the nonprofit Partnership for Policy Integrity, which closely tracks biomass regulations, told WBUR that the change was probably intended to prevent two small biomass facilities in the state from losing their subsidies. The Cooley Dickinson facility in Northampton and the Seaman Paper facility in Gardner are the only biomass plants in Mass. that currently qualify for renewable energy credits, and both are located in, or within five miles of, an environmental justice community.
It would be one thing if the state wanted to grandfather in these two small plants, Haight said, but the current language “further widens the door for out-of-state biomass power plants that are already operating to qualify to sell renewable energy in Massachusetts."
Chris Egan of the Massachusetts Forest Alliance, which is generally supportive of biomass, said during Tuesdays meeting that he would like to see the department write the rules so that only large utility-scale plants would be subject to the environmental justice provisions. This would allow the two small facilities in Mass. to continue receiving subsidies while also guaranteeing that any larger, more polluting plants in vulnerable areas can't participate in the program, he said.
It’s not entirely clear how the environmental justice provision would affect the ability of facilities in Maine or New Hampshire to qualify for subsidies since there is no national definition of an environmental justice community. It’s also not clear what it would mean for out-of-state facilities that shut down around 2012 but could be financially viable again if they received credits.
The department did not answer any questions during the hearing, but in an email, a spokesperson said that biomass facilities will need to prove they are in compliance with environmental justice provisions regardless of what state they are in.
As part of last year’s landmark Climate Law, the office of Energy and Environmental Affairs is legally required to conduct a study about the emissions and public health impacts associated with biomass. That study is not expected to be finished until next summer.
The Department of Energy Resources will likely submit its regulatory changes to the Secretary of State before that deadline.
What else is in the proposed update?
The biomass regulation update has gone through several iterations over the last few years. It’s confusing, to say the least. But there are four major changes currently on the table:
- Prohibits any plant built after Jan. 1, 2022 that is located within five miles of an environmental justice community from receiving clean energy subsidies
- Removes the requirement that the state have an advisory committee to track and verify where plants getting subsidies source their wood (any language about the committee would be classified as “guidance” rather than “regulation”)
- Eliminates the ability of plants to get a half credit for reaching 50% efficiency
- Waives any efficiency requirements for plants built before 2022 that get at least 95% of their wood from non-forest derived materials
(For more on what the efficiency standards mean, read our explainer.)
Why change the regulations?
At a hearing last year, Department of Energy Resources Commissioner Patrick Woodcock said that the proposed changes were intended to do two things: “streamline” language between two clean energy programs and help Massachusetts achieve its climate goals. He argued that it will be a while until renewable energies like offshore wind are able to be a sizable part of our energy portfolio, and in the meantime, we have emissions goals that we need to meet. He added that his department’s calculations show that the state will see net greenhouse gas reductions over the next few decades by burning wood instead of natural gas.
Caitlin Peele Sloan, vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation in Massachusetts, disagrees with these assumptions.
The “[Department of Energy Resources] has been trying to weaken these biomass regulations for more than three years now, while evidence grows that burning wood for electricity is massively inefficient and produces untenable amounts of local air pollution and climate-damaging emissions,” she says.
Many environmental groups in Mass., including the Conservation Law Foundation and the Sierra Club, signed a letter earlier this year in support of legislation that would remove woody biomass from the renewable energy subsidy program, effectively rendering the regulations moot. Several speakers during Tuesday's hearing pushed for lawmakers to pass this legislation.
The Department of Energy Resources will accept public comments on the proposal through Friday April 1. More details on how to submit a written comment are available here.
This article was originally published on March 29, 2022.