Massachusetts proposed RPS stymies biomass

By Lisa Gibson
Posted September 20, 2010, at 11:37 a.m. CST

If drafted renewable portfolio standard (RPS) regulations pass in Massachusetts, biomass power plants will be required to achieve between 40 and 70 percent efficiency and 50 percent greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction relative to life-cycle emissions from a combined-cycle natural gas facility using the most efficient technology. Not only would those standards be nearly impossible to meet without substantial investments, but it would thwart development of new plants, costing hundreds of jobs in an already struggling economy.

The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources released draft regulations for RPS qualification Sept. 17, drawing from the results of the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences' Biomass Sustainability and Carbon Policy Study, along with public input.

The study results showed a debt-then-dividend model in which woody biomass power initially emits more carbon per unit of energy than fossil fuels and makes it up over time. But it has been controversial in numerous aspects, perhaps most notably its evaluation of whole tree feedstock, which no biomass power plants utilize. It does take slash and forest residue into account, but only alongside whole logs. That greatly affects the carbon footprint, according to Bob Cleaves, president and CEO of the Biomass Power Association. "So essentially, the patient has been given a prescription for an ailment that doesn't exist," Cleaves said in a media call Sept. 20. The regulations will determine which projects will receive renewable energy certificates, therefore determining economic feasibility.

The draft regulations also include an encompassing definition of biomass, further limiting all biomass harvests to just 15 percent of the weight of all forest products. That greatly increases forest fire hazards as well as takes away a key market for forest owners, according to Kent Lage, executive director of the Massachusetts Wood Producers Association, who also participated in the call. The limitation should be based on a site-specific evaluation, not a one-size-fits-all standard, he added. "We've got some major concerns about that."

Pioneer Renewable Energy is developing a $250 million, 46-megawatt biomass power plant in Greenfield, Mass., that would pay more in local property taxes than the top 10 taxpayers combined, according to Principal Matt Wolfe. He argued the rules will most certainly stop development in all of New England, specifically the efficiency standard. "In our opinion, it's completely arbitrary and not scientific," he said.

Richard Rosen, of American Ag Energy, said he has proposed projects that would allow greenhouses to use heat from biomass power plants, but the proposed regulations would stomp them out. "We have four projects under development now in New England and none of them will be built under these rules," he said.

Wayne Lehman of Laborers Local Union 596 echoed the same sentiment, focusing on job loss. "Our guys need jobs," he said. "We have no jobs right now. I have guys who are having trouble putting food on their families' tables." When jobs in the biomass sector have arisen recently, they have been shot down just as quickly, he added.

The proposed rule also mandates cutting plans, fuel certificates, tonnage reports and forester certifications. In addition, Forest Impact Assessments must be conducted by the DOER every five years. Generation units using eligible woody biomass fuel or manufactured biomass fuel would also have to produce a quarterly report addressing biomass input heat content, useful thermal energy, merchantable bioproducts, renewable generation and overall efficiency. A comment period on the proposed rules is open until Oct. 21 and final rules should be released by the end of the year.

No state has proposed, let alone implemented such strict efficiency standards and Cleaves maintains they are unachievable and would "chill" any project in the commonwealth of Massachusetts, where biomass currently makes up 50 percent of the renewable portfolio. He said the rules attempt to increase efficiency of a project that doesn't exist-one that uses whole trees. "We are confident that no new facilities will be based in New England under these rules," he said.