Beating Up on Biomass

Opposition groups in Massachusetts petition for a three-year moratorium on biomass power.
By Lisa Gibson | April 29, 2011

Ever the biomass bullies, opposition groups in Massachusetts are continuing their organized efforts to stymie development in the commonwealth, this time asking for a three-year moratorium on biopower.

The language of the petition circulating in and outside of the communities with biomass power proposals pinpoints a continuance of the December 2009 moratorium on new Statements of Qualification for biomass under the renewable portfolio standard (RPS), as well as a moratorium on approval of biomass air permits, until Dec. 31, 2013. In addition, the petition asks the Commissioner of the State Department of Public Health to issue a policy against biomass electricity.

A number of opposition groups collaborated on the petition including Concerned Citizens of Franklin County and Concerned Citizens of Russell, but inquiries about the petition went unanswered by both groups. The petition itself says signed copies can be delivered to Massachusetts Forest Watch, but founder Chris Matera declined to comment on it.

The moratorium request on the Statements of Qualification specifies the Dec. 31, 2013 date, but goes on to say “… or until such time as U.S. EPA concludes rulemaking on biomass energy greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act …” In January, the EPA announced a three-year deferment of compliance for biogenic emissions under its Tailoring Rule. All sources not exempt began compliance efforts in January, and the EPA says it will use the three years to further analyze the science behind biogenic emissions. 

“Agency determinations are normally made that a certain application does or does not comply with regulations and requirements,” says Stephen Kaiser, who describes himself as a mechanical engineer, as well as a technical resource for the opposition groups and expert witness. He says his opposition to biomass differs from others’ in Massachusetts, however, as he only opposes large plants and leaves open a use for small, dry-cooled biomass power plants to handle forest thinnings. “If EPA makes a determination that a power plant complies with requirements, I would not recommend concurrence by any group until the basis for EPA's decision could be reviewed for accuracy and credibility,” Kaiser continues, saying that in his experience, air pollution modeling is fraught with error and manipulation, even on the state level.

But to some developers, the overall goal of the petition effort might be unclear. “There’s no process,” says Vic Gatto, principal and chief operating officer of biomass power developer Caletta Renewable Energy. “They’re just trying to get some petitions signed and trying to figure out what they could do. It could go on the ballot, but that’s a lengthy process, so that wouldn’t impact us.” Caletta is developing the 35-megawatt (MW) Palmer Renewable Energy Center in Springfield, Mass., scheduled for operation in 2013 with an appetite of 1,200 tons of wood chips per day. “We wouldn’t expect, given we’ve already been given the draft permit, that we would fall under [the moratorium]. It’s a long way away from being started and we will have received our final air permit by then, so it might hurt other people, but we wouldn’t expect it to hurt us.” 

Even taking the petition out of the equation still leaves a sketchy policy environment, as the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER) is months overdue in releasing its final RPS qualification standards, having released a draft in September that was exceptionally damaging for biomass development. The rules are the basis for determining which projects qualify for the state’s 20 percent by 2025 RPS and receive renewable energy certificates (RECs). Among other things, the proposal stipulates that a biomass power plant will only be eligible if it achieves 40 percent efficiency, and still would only receive half an REC. Under the proposal, that would be ratcheted up to one full REC upon reaching 60 percent efficiency. But from a developer’s perspective, even 40 percent can be a daunting hurdle.

“The notion that anybody is going to get those levels of efficiency is humorous,” Gatto says. “It wouldn’t make sense that they would keep those efficiency numbers there, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t. At this point, we’ll just have to wait and see what they come up with, and we’re content to move forward regardless of what they decide to do.”

In the Beginning

It all started in December 2009, when the state commissioned a study by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences to evaluate the carbon neutrality of biomass for energy, after heavy fire from biomass opposition groups. At that time, a moratorium on RPS qualification for biomass projects was implemented and was to remain in effect until the study was concluded and any appropriate subsequent measures were taken. It remains in effect now, awaiting the release of the final RPS qualifications. The findings of the study, released in June 2010, explain a debt-then-dividend carbon analysis of woody biomass, saying it initially releases more carbon dioxide than coal per unit of energy, but pays off its carbon debt as forests regrow and that carbon is resequestered.

But the study has raised arguments from the biomass industry in numerous aspects, perhaps most notably its evaluation of whole tree feedstock. It does take slash and forest residue into account, but only alongside whole logs.

Still, then Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Ian Bowles wrote a letter to the DOER on July 7 ordering a swift change to the RPS qualification standards, in light of the “deeper understanding” of the greenhouse gas impacts of biomass energy communicated in the Manomet study. Bowles has since been replaced by Richard Sullivan, but Gatto says he doubts the position comes with much clout in the hot debate. “I don’t think they’re much in control of the Massachusetts environment,” he says. “They’re doing their job and trying to follow the rules. There are lots of people on both sides of the issues.”

Interestingly, Bowles’ letter was issued two days before the public comment period on the Manomet findings was up, and subsequently, a ballot initiative being pushed heavily by the state’s biomass foes was taken off the table. Grassroots group Stop Spewing Carbon announced it would no longer push for its ballot initiative limiting biomass power emissions to 250 pounds per megawatt hour, as it considered Bowles’ letter a sign of its victory.

“With regard to the new grassroots petition, I don’t know if biomass opponents will go to the same lengths that they did on the ballot initiative on which they spent, according to state records, $307,526.74,” says John Bos, public information officer for Russell Biomass LLC, which is developing a 50-MW plant in Russell, Mass.

“The fact is that the environmental clock is ticking while the potential for renewable energy development in Massachusetts has been slowed to a snail’s pace because of opposition to large-scale biomass, large-scale wind and, more recently, all sizes of on-shore wind,” Bos says. “Without large-scale biomass-fueled electric power using clean, nonforest waste wood fuel, the commonwealth will not meet [its renewable goals].”