Biomass industry leaders say the proposed regulations set unachievable standards, and as a result, biomass plant projects might never get off the ground.
The draft regulations that were released on Friday by the state Department of Energy Resources require wood-burning plants to reach 40 percent overall efficiency in order to receive half of a renewable-energy credit. In order to receive the full credit, a facility would have to achieve an efficiency standard of 60 percent. These new regulations are based off of a state study that suggests that biomass facilities, in comparison to other renewable energy facilities, produce more carbon emissions.
The new rules are the latest twist in a long-running debate about whether biomass should qualify as a form of renewable energy and benefit from clean energy incentives.
Local environmentalists who have long fought a biomass boom said the announcement was a positive signal.
“We are supporting the regulations,” James McCaffrey, director of the Massachusetts Sierra Club, told SolveClimate News.
But, McCaffrey said the efficiency standard is not tough enough to ensure that facilities’ combustion emissions are better than a coal facility’s.
“Biomass is applying for renewable energy credits in order to replace fossil fuels,” he said. “We believe it should be as efficient, and have equal to or less CO2 emissions than the best technology that we have for fossil fuel.”
Representatives for the state say that facilities producing both power and heat should be able to meet the efficiency standards, but leaders of the Biomass Power Association (BPA) say these regulations would prevent projects from acquiring the state support that is needed to secure other investors. They say state officials are unfairly targeting the biomass industry.
A controversial study by the Massachusetts-based Manomet Center for Conservation Studies, commissioned by Gov. Deval Patrick and released in June, found that certain biomass technologies produce more climate-changing emissions than coal plants for up to 40 years.
The study, which in large part encouraged the proposed regulations has been hotly contested by the biomass industry, which maintains that the Manomet study was rooted in the wrong-headed premise that the industry is chopping whole trees for incineration. Industry leaders say that biomass plants burn forest waste, not whole trees, and is carbon neutral.
“The study measured emissions of whole forests, which skewed the results,” BPA said in a statement.
If the rule goes into effect it would devastate the industry, Bob Cleaves, president of BPA, told the Boston Globe on Sunday.
“If these standards are enacted as proposed, I’m quite certain that there will be no new development in New England,’’ said Cleaves, whose group is based in Portland, Maine. “There will be no new biomass jobs created in New England. That’s a significant job killer.’’
BPA says a typical biomass plant in Massachusetts could lose a quarter to a third of its cash flow, which would results in a significant workforce reduction.
Chris Matera, founder of Massachusetts Forest Watch applauds the proposed regulations but agrees that the new rules with have a huge impact on the biomass industry.
The fact that Massachusetts is taking a harder look at this “is huge,” said Matera. He added: “It’s probably going to have international implications.”
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has already invested $1 million to jump-start four proposed wood-burning plants in Russell, Greenfield, Pittsfield, and Springfield.
The proposed regulations will be debated at a public hearing next month. If they are approved, Massachusetts would be the first state to adopt such stringent rules.