MA EEA requests swift policy change following biomass study

By Lisa Gibson | May 31, 2010
Posted July 9, 2010, at 11:30 a.m. CST

In a July 7 letter to the Massachusetts Department of Energy and Resources, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts requests swift revision of the state's renewable portfolio standard regulations, following the release of a study outlining a complex and less-than-favorable carbon analysis of woody biomass. That request raises concerns in the biomass industry, however, because it comes before the public comment period is over, July 9.

"We're perplexed by it to say the least," said Bob Cleaves, president and CEO of the Biomass Power Association. Cleaves said he is baffled by the process being undertaken for adopting regulations, as well as the language in the letter. "Two days before the comments are due, they essentially adopt a final rule and direct their agency to promulgate the rule," he said.

The findings of the study, by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, explain a debt-then-dividend carbon analysis of woody biomass, saying it initially releases more carbon dioxide than coal per unit of energy, but pays off its carbon debt as forests regrow and that carbon is resequestered.

In the letter, Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Ian Bowles wrote, "In light of the Manomet study, we have a deeper understanding that the greenhouse gas impacts of biomass energy are far more complicated than the conventional view that electricity from power plants using biomass harvested from New England biomass forests is carbon neutral. The findings of the Manomet study have changed the policy landscape for biomass energy production derived from wood fuels." He wrote that the state's policy should reflect the "current science" by supporting facilities with the greenhouse gas (GHG) profile needed to fulfill the state's emission reduction mandates of reaching 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 and 10 to 25 percent by 2020. "Given the general findings of the Manomet study, our obligations under the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2008, and the authority of the DOER to regulate state incentives for renewable biomass sources of energy, …I direct you and your staff at the DOER to move expeditiously to align our regulations with our better understanding of the greenhouse gas implications of biomass energy."

The letter outlines six important changes to the policy: in order to qualify for renewable energy certificates, facilities must be designed, constructed and operated to achieve maximum practicable efficiency as determined by the DOER, providing significant near-term GHG dividends in a combined-heat-and-power (CHP) facility or comparable technology; renewable energy generating sources must yield at least a 50 percent life-cycle GHG reduction per unit of energy over 20 years; the fuel source must be grown, harvested and used sustainably; construction and demolition debris will not be eligible for renewable energy certificates; regulations will not apply to energy from anaerobic digestion of agricultural crops, animal wastes, food or sewage sludge; and regulations must address the use of forest residues.

Lack of Transparency?

Issuing such an order before the comment period is over shows a lack of transparency and implies a disregard for public input, according to Cleaves. "We think that the process is unfair and hardly what the secretary on page two of the letter calls a ‘transparent and robust public process,'" he said. "To the contrary, it's a backroom deal that has got nothing to do with science or law." Cleaves added that the standards outlined in the letter seem to be "made up" as they go along and he is concerned that the biomass industry in Massachusetts might not be able to meet them.

Robert Keogh, spokesman for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, doesn't see it that way. "The point of Secretary Bowles' letter at this point was to set out his expectations and essentially his first comment on the direction that he sees for policy coming out of the Manomet study," he said, adding that the rulemaking process will include public comment periods, hearings and comment periods on draft regulations. "This is an ongoing process of back and forth between the public and state officials, so that comment process is ongoing."

Keogh said there's no doubt the policy will change and the letter represents the start of that process. "It's been very clear since the beginning of this process when we were even soliciting the study to be done for us," he said. "Going in, the goal was to provide a review of the best available science on biomass for the purpose of ultimately developing criteria for the sustainable feedstock and carbon impacts from biomass energy. But the intention from the beginning was to set a new direction in policy. The terms of that were and are to be determined by both the Manomet study and the rulemaking process to follow."

Despite the language and timing of the letter, which does add that questions remain to be answered, Keogh assured that public comments play a large role in drafting policies, although the intent to make policy changes will stand. "Certainly the final terms of the policy change will be very much informed by the public comment," he said. "The fact that there will be policy changes, I think, is not likely to change. We're not going to wind back the tape and say we don't need sustainability and carbon criteria for biomass after all. We do need that."

A Victory for the Opposition

Stop Spewing Carbon a Massachusetts grass roots effort to get an initiative on the November ballot limiting biomass carbon emissions to 250 pounds per megawatt hour, has backed off and announced it will not push for inclusion on the ballot, following the release of the letter, which it sees as a victory. "Ending renewable energy credits for dirty incinerators was the central goal of our ballot question and we have won," said Meg Sheehan, chair of the campaign, in a statement published on its website. "This is a groundbreaking development that means an end to commercial biomass electric power plants in Massachusetts," she is also quoted as saying.

Keogh agrees that the goal of the ballot initiative was achieved, in that the state will more strictly regulate biomass emissions. "Our view is that the process we're going through is going to accomplish the legitimate goals of what that ballot initiative was looking to do, which was to restrict renewable energy incentives to those technologies that truly contributed toward meeting our greenhouse gas goals." He added that it's hard to say at this point whether Sheehan is correct in her statement that biomass power will be eliminated in the state. "That's what the rulemaking process will cover," he said.

In that process, the question of the difference in carbon accounting for forest residues will be addressed, as the study did not take that feedstock into account in technical detail as it did with new, whole trees. That has been one of the main concerns about the study from the biomass industry, as forest residue, not whole trees, is the feedstock of most operating and proposed biomass facilities. When asked if it is a misrepresentation of the biomass industry and its operations, Keogh replied, "Well, we asked Manomet to study greenhouse gas emissions from sustainable forestry, so that was their take on how to do that. They recognized they were not analyzing forest residues and that the forest residues would likely have a very different carbon profile than harvested forest materials and addressing that question of how to account for the carbon impacts of forest residues will absolutely be a central question to be addressed in the rulemaking process."

When asked if forest residues will be as thoroughly assessed as harvested wood was in the Manomet study, Keogh said, "It will be fully and thoroughly vetted through the rulemaking process, yes."

Bowles requests in his letter that the DOER draft regulations on or before Sept. 1 of this year, draft final rules on or before Oct. 31 of this year, and have final regulations in place by Dec. 31 of this year.

The topic will be discussed further during a general session panel titled Answering the Sustainability Question: Addressing Citizen Opposition to Biomass Derived Power at Biomass Magazine's Northeast Biomass Conference & Expo Aug. 4-6 in Boston. The panel will include Tom Walker, a Manomet consultant who will discuss the study, specifically the carbon accounting, and moderator Dwayne Breger, director of renewable and alternative energy development at the DOER.

More information about the Northeast Biomass Conference & Expo can be found at