Massachusetts Policy Troubling for Renewable Energy Development

By Bob Cleaves | May 23, 2011

Recently, the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources made official a policy that was long in the making—the effective “delisting” of biomass electricity as a qualifying technology under that state’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS). By imposing efficiency standards that are technologically and financially unachievable, Massachusetts has become the only state in the nation—and perhaps unique in the world—in deciding that biomass is not a form of renewable energy.

As an industry, we advocated that such a policy has no basis in science, is bad for rural New England, deprives the region of “baseload” sources of renewable energy, and shows a profound misunderstanding of the type of fuels that we use to create energy. But perhaps the most troubling aspect of the proposed rule is the message it sends to developers and investors.

To appreciate the breadth of the problem in Massachusetts, we need to revisit the past 10 years or so. When the state adopted an RPS, the state agency—DOER—engaged in an exhaustive rule-making process among all stakeholders to determine what type of biomass would qualify for the RPS. Keep in mind that the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Certificate program was, and remains, one of the more aggressive programs in the nation, which translated into significant benefits for owners and operators of renewable energy technology that qualified under the program, including biomass. 

Upon the adoption of these rules, a number of facilities in the region made significant investments. A coal plant was converted, boilers were retrofitted to the tune of millions of dollars, and qualifying facilities were sold to investors—all on the belief that Massachusetts had arrived at a policy that could be relied upon, at least for a predictable period of time, so investments would be recouped.

Enter Stop Spewing Carbon, a small vocal minority dedicated to stopping a number of new biomass facilities in western Massachusetts. They convinced the state to take another look at biomass, claiming that new biomass would cause deforestation. We all know the end of the story—the resulting study (the so-called Manomet [Center for Conservation Sciences] report), analyzed (using flawed methodology) the carbon impacts of harvesting natural forests for energy (not what we do), and the media (in error) concluded that biomass was “worse than coal.” That was all Gov. Deval Patrick needed to hear to declare, “off with their heads.” And in one stroke of the regulatory pen, woody biomass was disqualified.

Never mind the fact that by displacing biomass, Massachusetts has inadvertently become the largest supporter of baseload coal and natural gas, or that the state’s own study had nothing to do with using forestry residues and byproducts. Investors and developers in all renewable energy sources should be concerned about the underlying message this sends: Come to Massachusetts and invest in our renewable markets, but we can and will change the rules of the game, and we don’t care if you lose your investment based on later policies we enact. We can and will change the rules, regardless of your reasonable expectations based on our representations.

Author: Bob Cleaves
President and CEO, Biomass Power Association