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Massachusetts Finalizes Strict Regulations on Biomass Plants

The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER) finalized the Massachusetts Renewable Portfolio Standard Class I regulations for biomass eligibility yesterday after more than two years of evaluation and heated debate.

The final standards require all woody biomass plants to generate power at minimum 50 percent efficiency to receive one half of a renewable energy credit (REC), and 60 percent efficiency to receive one full REC. Previously plants were required to operate at 25 percent efficiency. All plants must also achieve a 50 percent reduction in lifecycle emissions over 20 years.

These new standards are expected to shake up the industry, and some fear that they will influence regulation throughout the country. If these standards were applied nationally, almost 50 percent of the biomass power plants in operation would be considered non-renewable, according to Bob Cleaves, CEO of the Biomass Power Association.

In addition to these strict measures, Massachusetts will also requires a Forest Impact Assessment every five years to determine the industry’s influence on the environment and ensure its preservation. The state will aslo 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.

The final standards have been influenced by the 2010 Manomet Center for Conversion Sciences study that determined biomass energy is not carbon neutral and does not cut greenhouse gasses. The study states that burning biomass creates an even larger carbon debt and releases more CO2 for every kilowatt of energy produced than some fossil fuels.  

The Monomet findings have been debated extensively, with some analysts claiming that the study failed to account for the use of waste wood — burning dead, rotting material from the forest floor, which can promote new growth and carbon absorption — and the selective harvesting method. This method states that carbon released from harvesting a certain number of trees in a set system is offset by carbon accumulation from the entire remaining system.

Despite the ongoing arguments, DOER believes that these regulations will ultimately help Massachusetts reach its carbon reduction goals — the Commonwealth must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050, according to the Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) set in 2008.

“The adoption of this revised regulation and guidelines demonstrates the Patrick-Murray Administration’s commitment to advancing the Commonwealth’s clean energy goals and greenhouse gas reduction commitments based on sound science and prudent policy,” said DOER Commissioner Mark Sylvia in a release.  “Through this regulation and other initiatives, DOER believes there is a role for biomass energy in the Commonwealth focused on high efficiency use of the limited sustainable wood resource.”

Lead image: Gavel via Shuterstock

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