New Rules Could Shut Door on Commercial-Scale Biomass Power in Massachusetts – and the Rest of New England

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s administration today released long-awaited rules that could determine the fate of biomass energy projects proposed in this region – as well as its air quality and the health of its forests. And industry officials say the regulation’s effects could reach far beyond the state’s borders.  

Several years ago, the Patrick administration saw biomass as an up-and-coming component of the state’s efforts to reduce the use of fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions. But prodded by environmentalists, the state commissioned an independent study of  the technology. It’s conclusion: depending on the specific technology, biomass energy production is not always carbon neutral – particularly at larger scales.

The new regulations are founded on that finding – and their effect, observers like Sue Reid of the Conservation Law Foundaiton say, likely will be to shut the door on state incentives for renewable energy that large-scale wood-burning power plants need to be get private financing.

“Electric generation alone simply appears to be not in the cards anymore under this regulation.”

That’s because burning wood or other organic materials to make electricity is not that efficient – a lot of the energy — stored in the biomass is lost to the atmosphere in the form of heat . Projects that capture that energy – to heat buildings, for instance, can qualify for the state incentives — they’re called renewable energy credits – but it’s hard to develop such projects at large – and money-making – scale. It’s easy to sell electricity to far-away markets — steam-produced heat, which cools off rapidly, however, needs to be used nearby.

“And that necessarily tends to limit these facilities to being used for example for colleges; college campuses see a lot of these combined heat and power units… or hospital campuses or even corporate campuses. But unless you’ve designed a whole community with the pipes and infrastructure to have say a district heating system its very hard to retrofit distribution systems economically to make that happen].”

One national industry representative, Robert Cleaves of the Biomass Power Association, says the consequences of the decision will affect biomass projects throughout New England – and could force the shut down of some whose finances already depend on renewable energy credits they get for selling power into Massachusetts. Under the new rules, he says, those companies – in Vermont, Maine and new Hampshire, will be able to get the credits for a certain period of time – but then they will lose them unless they can qualify under the new regime.

“The effect of that is going to be to nullify millions of dollars worth of investments. You’re probably going to close plants causing hundreds of people to be out of work at a time when the region really can’t afford to be losing those kinds of jobs in rural New England.”

And Cleaves says the chilling effect of the Massachusetts rule could go beyond biomass too. The analysis of the biomass technologies included what is called a “life-cycle” examination, which includes counting carbon dioxide produced in facility construction and fuel  transport, among other factors.  If those standards were applied to incentives provided for wind or solar technologies, he says, they might fall short too.

If those standards were applied to incentives provided for wind or solar technologies, he says, they might fall short too.

The Conservation Law Foundation’s Sue Reid says the new rules are the toughest in the nation – and she hopes that, for biomass, at least, states where the technology is surging – particularly in the south east — will follow the Bay State’s lead.

Representatives of two controversial biomass projects in western Massachusetts — one in Russell and one in Greenfield, could not be reached for comment for this story. There is a one-month public comment period before the new rules become permanent.