New RPS Qualifications Treat Biopower Unfairly

I have been watching the Massachusetts biomass power developments, or should I say setbacks, and the situation there is totally out of control.
By Rona Johnson | May 13, 2011

I have been watching the Massachusetts biomass power developments, or should I say setbacks, and the situation there is totally out of control.

The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources has issued overly strict efficiency standards for stand-alone biomass power plants. Although project developers have said they will do what they need to do to comply, the process that they’ve had to go through should serve as a warning to other renewable energy industries.

I’ve had a lot of people ask me why these projects don’t just move to some other state to avoid all the drama. The simple answer is that they’ve invested so much money and time into these projects that they can’t afford to move. When they first started siting and permitting their plants they were under the impression that Massachusetts, with a renewable portfolio standard of 15 percent renewable by 2020, was interested in the use of biomass to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels.

I think Bob Cleaves, president and CEO of the Biomass Power Association, said it best, “New restrictions on larger biomass facilities, proposed [May 3] by the [Gov. Deval] Patrick Administration, demonstrate a profound lack of understanding of our industry and the science behind it. Even worse, the proposal effectively changes the rules of the game in the eighth inning, which is completely unfair to investors who made significant investments based on rules already in place.”


How can the state expect well-meaning developers to risk millions of dollars on renewable energy projects, just to have the rug pulled right out from under them?

I recently read an article in North American Windpower magazine titled “New DOER Biomass Regulations Would Benefit Wind Development,” but I will be curious to see how far the industry will get. I’m sure the solar industry is also thinking they will benefit from the new restrictions.

I expect to be bombarded with comments, emails and calls from environmentalists once this blog is posted, but so be it. Once again, I’m not an advocate of clear-cutting and destroying our nation’s forest to produce bioenergy. I believe that we can accomplish this in a way that sustains forestland and even improves forests if we just work together, because reducing our reliance on fossil fuels is not going to be easy and will take all kinds of resources. But taking one renewable source such as biomass out of the equation will make it even more difficult.

The Stop Spewing Carbon group is taking credit for the new regulations in Massachusetts and urges members on its website to demand that their “tax dollars go to efficiency and conservation measures, as well as appropriately-sited and scaled, zero-waste and zero-emission renewable energy sources like solar, wind, small-hydroelectric (no new dams), small geothermal and wave/tidal.”

Good luck with that. I hope they are also open to housing the production facilities that build the wind turbines and solar panels, which I’m pretty sure emit some type of emissions. Also, a wind farm was proposed for Nantucket Sound but it has been put on hold because of opposition from citizens and local politicians (sound familiar). I hope they also understand the difficulty of developing even small amounts hydroelectric power without building any new dams, and geothermal heat pumps require electricity to run them, and upfront costs are high. While harnessing the power produced by the tides or waves sounds like a great idea, it is still under development and considered to be expensive.

I’m not saying these renewable sources are bad, I’m just saying there are drawbacks to every source of energy.

In fact, when Massachusetts residents realize how much acreage it takes to produce an appreciable amount of wind or solar power, they will most likely protest against it as they have with biomass. And, once all of the coal-fired power plants have either curtailed production or been shuttered because they can’t comply with U.S. EPA regulations and the cost of electricity skyrockets, residents there will have no choice but to start burning wood for energy, just like people did before there was electric power. Let’s just hope that all the wood-burning stoves and fireplaces in the state emit zero emissions.

It also worries me that the state of Massachusetts is making policy decisions based on a small group of people and ignoring the greater good. A 2007 report by the University of Massachusetts estimated that biomass energy plants would bring in nearly $80 million in annual economic output and create about 600 new jobs in the state. I bet there are some people in that state who could have used some of those jobs.