Mass. coalition publicizes initiative's negative impacts

By Lisa Gibson
Posted March 17, 2010, at 9:29 a.m. CST

Proponents of renewable energy in Massachusetts have formed a coalition to educate the public about the detriments of a proposed ballot initiative that would unreasonably limit carbon emissions.

The initiative is slated to appear on the Nov. 2 ballot and will mandate that biomass power plants, along with other renewable facilities, emit no more than 250 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour (MWh) in order to qualify for the state renewable portfolio standard (RPS) of 20 percent by 2025. Without that qualification, plants will not generate renewable energy credits, a key portion of their revenue.

The mandate is completely unreasonable, according to Matthew Wolfe, chairman of the Committee For A Clean Economy, which formed the coalition, and principal of Madera Energy Inc, a renewable energy project developer. "It totally ignores the life-cycle analysis of biomass, considered to be carbon-neutral," he said. In addition, the definition of biomass in the initiative is broad and would include wood, waste, anaerobic digestion and more. "A lot of different things would be captured in this ballot measure," he said.

The initiative would stymie renewable energy development in Massachusetts, making it difficult to meet its RPS. "We want to try to develop as much renewable energy as possible and this would hurt that," Wolfe said. It would also significantly impact job creation in the state and hinder innovation. "We want to try to innovate our way out of our dependence on fossil fuels," he said. The technologies available are efficient and the problem is not with the biomass industry, but the ‘not In my back yard' (NIMBY) mindset, Wolfe said, adding that not everyone would agree. "A lot of this opposition is based on NIMBYism," he said.

The coalition's campaign, led by Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications, will focus partially on debunking NIMBY-related concerns, but also will educate the public on the overall benefits of biomass power, along with the other effected renewable energy sectors, such as biofuel and anaerobic digestion. Wolfe said the organization has seen positive feedback so far from focus groups. "This is an opportunity to bring together people with common interests around a common issue, which up to this point, hasn't been very well organized," he said.

Madera is developing a 47 megawatt (MW) combined-heat-and-power (CHP) plant, the Pioneer Renewable Energy Project, in western Massachusetts. The plant will run on clean wood biomass and will have the capacity to provide steam and heat to nearby homes and businesses. Massachusetts has ample woody biomass resources, prompting several other power plant proposals in communities such as Russell and Greenfield, but citizen opposition is broad and seems to be gaining ground. At the beginning of December, the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources suspended all consideration of new biomass projects for participation in the state RPS as it awaits the results of a third-party study to determine the sustainability and carbon neutrality of biomass power generation. The study, led by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, is largely fueled by the vocal citizen opposition. It should be completed by June, with any new rulings released at the end of the year.

Even with such staunch resistance, Wolfe is optimistic that his coalition will succeed in convincing voters that the initiative will adversely affect the state. "This isn't a great thing that's happening in Massachusetts, but we're confident that we can win this," he said.