Playing by New Rules

Massachusetts has released its final ruling on RPS qualifications and it remains unfriendly to stand-alone biopower.
By Lisa Gibson | May 23, 2011

The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources released a much-anticipated regulation in May that outlines qualification parameters for the state’s 20 percent by 2025 renewable portfolio standard (RPS). Uncertainty has surrounded the biomass industry in the commonwealth since the DOER released a draft proposal of RPS qualification regulations in September. One of the main issues with the proposal was the minimum efficiency standard of 40 percent for biomass power facilities to qualify and, unfortunately, the final draft didn’t revise that rule.

The May ruling says a low-emission, advanced biomass power conversion technology using an eligible biomass fuel can qualify as an RPS Class I Renewable Generation Unit if it can demonstrate a minimum of 40 percent efficiency on a quarterly basis, among several other criteria. Still, 40 percent efficiency only qualifies for half a renewable energy credit (REC) per megawatt hour (MWh), ratcheted up to one full REC per MWh upon reaching 60 percent efficiency. The definition of eligible biomass fuel includes eligible biomass woody fuels, which are certain forest-derived residues, forest salvage, nonforest-derived residues such as those from primary and secondary forest product industries, yard waste and dedicated energy crops. Overall, the draft includes numerous changes from the original, but is still limiting for the Massachusetts biopower industry.

The efficiency standard will force several proposed projects to add combined-heat-and-power (CHP) components to receive RECs. “The efficiency requirement and GHG (greenhouse gas) benefits threshold (50 percent better than gas fired) are OK in the direction they go, but harsher than necessary to still achieve net GHG benefits,” says Peter Bos, developer for Russell Biomass LLC, which is developing a 50-megawatt biomass power plant in Russell, Mass. Bos says the bottom line is stand-alone biomass power is no longer economically viable. Currently, most biopower facilities in New England can achieve only 20 to 25 percent efficiency.

Still, Bos says he supports the proposal in principle, even though it is much more stringent than necessary. “All parties should be willing to compromise and accept terms that aren’t perfect as long as they can still work, which they probably can for CHP biomass,” he says.

But Bob Cleaves, president and CEO of the Biomass Power Association, isn’t as accepting. “New restrictions on larger biomass facilities, proposed (May 3) by the (Gov. Deval) Patrick Administration, demonstrate a profound lack of understanding of our industry and the science behind it,” he says. “Even worse, the proposal effectively changes the rules of the game in the eighth inning, which is completely unfair to investors who made significant investments based on rules already in place.”

Along with efficiency standards, the final draft includes a number of provisions for eligible woody biomass fuels. For instance, a biomass fuel certificate must accompany every delivery of eligible woody biomass fuel or manufactured fuel to a generation unit. For forest-delivered eligible woody biomass fuel, the biomass fuel certificate must be issued with the eligible forest residue tonnage report, which details the amount of biomass that can be harvested, and includes a number of aspects including a signature of a professional forester who is certified by the Society of American Foresters, licensed by the host state of the harvest site, or certified by the DOER based on documentation that a professional forester has proficiency and experience in forestry, the final draft specifies.

Whereas the September draft mandated that biomass harvests could not exceed 15 percent of the weight of all forest products, the May final regulation says the allowable percent removal limit will be determined as prescribed by the DOER in its Forest Derived Eligible Biomass Woody Fuel Guideline to protect soil nutrient retention. “Based on comments (on the 2010 proposal) and further research, DOER has concluded that the 15 percent limit is arbitrary and insufficiently based on science regarding soil nutrient needs,” according to the DOER. “Instead, the amount of biomass that should be left in the forest varies depending on the existing soil conditions.”

The final forest protection regulations are more reasonable than those first proposed, Bos says, but still will be difficult for many wood harvesters to comply with because of time and cost. “Cutting down live trees doesn’t work for anybody, including biomass developers, so we’re OK with the prohibition against that in the regs.”

The rewritten regulations are the result of a 2010 Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences study, which found a debt-then-dividend carbon impact for woody biomass. That spurred the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs to order a swift change to its RPS qualification rules to reflect the new findings. The study has been deemed flawed by the biomass industry, among others, for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that it takes slash, forest residue and other waste wood into account only alongside whole logs.

“The administration continues to base its biomass policy on one flawed report, the 2010 Manomet study,” Cleaves says. “The report’s authors acknowledge that their study did not measure the emissions of biomass power generated using wood waste materials, which is the approach used by the vast majority of the industry in New England. Yet the Patrick Administration continues to legislate based on the carbon profile of using whole forests as biomass fuel—a practice that the industry does not engage in or condone.”

Bos says the Manomet science behind the regulations has some validity but adds, “Unfortunately, the Manomet finding that a 100-percent waste wood-fueled biomass plant would produce GHG benefits favorable to even gas-fired power was lost in the press reports.”

The new regulation will be referred to the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy, which will have 30 days to review it and provide comments to DOER, according to Dwayne Breger, director of renewable and alternative energy development for the DOER. “After considering these comments, DOER anticipates filing the final regulation after another 30 days for promulgation,” he adds.

—Lisa Gibson