Mass. publishes final RPS woody biomass regulations

By Anna Simet | August 20, 2012

More than two years after the process began, the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources has published its final regulation pertaining to the eligibility of woody biomass energy for its renewable portfolio standard (RPS) Class I regulations, and it appears as though stand-alone biomass power will no longer be a feasible option in the state.

The enactment of the regulation ends the existing moratorium on new biomass power projects, which was imposed in December 2009. During that time, the DOER commissioned a study performed by the Manomet Institute, which resulted in highly-controversial, hotly-debated findings that rendered biomass electricity in the state as non-carbon neutral.

Based on Manomet’s findings, a draft of the woody biomass RPS regulation was filed in May 2011 and was the subject of two public hearings, a written public comment period and comments from the Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy. DOER officials then incorporated a number of changes to the draft regulations in April, and officials offered the regulation again for a 30-day public comment period between May 19 and June 18, 2012, after which the final regulation was prepared and filed for promulgation. 

The final regulations establish the following:

-Define eligible woody biomass fuels, including classifications as either residues or thinned trees, while ensuring sustainable forest resources, and protecting habitats and ecological functions. The determination of volume of harvest residues that must be retained on a harvest site is based on soil productivity.

-Require all woody biomass units to achieve a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over 20 years as compared to a combined-cycle natural gas unit.

-Establish an electronic certificate registry to track and verify eligible biomass fuel supplies and differentiate between wood derived from residues and forest thinnings.

-Mandate a minimum operating efficiency, inclusive of electric and thermal outputs, of 50 percent to receive one half of a renewable energy credit (REC) with the ability to receive a full REC at an efficiency of 60 percent.

-Create a special category of biomass units deemed to be advancing the technology that will be eligible for half-RECs at an efficiency of 40 percent.

-Require a Forest Impact Assessment every five years to review program implementation and any impacts on forests and markets as well as an Advisory Panel to review tracking and enforcement mechanisms.

The final regulation, guidelines, and other documentation and information are available on the RPS Biomass Policy Regulatory Process web page.

Many Massachusetts developers have been anxiously waiting on the regulations—which have been very tardy compared to the timeline initially announced by the DOER—to see how they will impact projects. Most that will move forward have anticipated adding a combined-heat-and-power component in order to reach efficiency mandates, as stand-alone biomass power will not qualify under the RPS.

In comments provided to Biomass Magazine, Biomass Power Association President Bob Cleaves said the rules are not based on sound science, and are bad for both biomass and Massachusetts. “They essentially shut down a major source of renewable energy for the state, a result at odds with the state's ambitious renewable energy goals,” he said. “The Biomass Power Association will continue to do all we can to fight back against these measures, and to ensure that no other states follow Massachusetts' lead." 

DOER officials said they would soon announce the process to be followed for the treatment of biomass under the RPS Class II program, which supports pre-1998 renewable energy generation.