The Massachusetts governor's office last week said the biomass electricity industry must meet strict emissions standards if wood-fired power plants expect to earn renewable energy credits (RECs).
Gov. Deval L. Patrick and Lt. Gov. Timothy P. Murray proposed the restrictions before the Legislature this week after the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER) revised the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) to account for the findings of an independent study.
In June, the DOER-commissioned study by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences of Plymouth concluded that large-scale, biomass-fired electricity would create 3% more greenhouse emissions (GHG) than coal-fired plants by 2050.
“The product of rigorous scientific study and a robust public process, these regulations demonstrate, once again, that Massachusetts is way ahead of the pack nationally when it comes to clean energy policy,” said Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) Secretary Richard K. Sullivan Jr. in a prepared statement.
The Manomet study did not initially account for the benefits of burning waste wood, so biomass supporters dispute its findings.
“New restrictions on larger biomass facilities, proposed yesterday by the Patrick Administration, demonstrate a profound lack of understanding of our industry and the science behind it,” said Bob Cleaves, President and CEO of the Biomass Power Association, in a prepared statement. “The Administration continues to base its biomass policy on one flawed report.”
Nathanael Greene, a senior energy policy specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), told Renewable Energy World that Patrick’s proposal would benefit the environment because it restricts timber harvests while requiring biomass producers to provide a carbon lifecycle analysis.
“Biomass can work for the climate in the right circumstances,” he said.
Before the proposed regulations, Massachusetts’ biomass electricity generators were eligible for Class I RECs, which trade for $15 to $20 per megawatt hour (MWh). Sullivan said REC funds are limited, so the DOER revised the RPS to ensure energy projects meet ambitious goals for GHG reductions.
Massachusetts, officially a commonwealth, is among the first states to regulate biomass emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency tabled the issue for three years when it announced in January a three-year deferral on GHG-permitting requirements.
But regulatory uncertainty in various states has led to the cancellation of many biomass power plants.
Massachusetts is also a clear battleground in the GHG controversies surrounding wood-fired electricity. The Biomass Accountability Project obtained 130,000 voter signatures to remove biomass from the RPS.
“While the DOER regulations don’t go far enough in completely removing dirty biomass smokestacks from the Renewable Portfolio Standard, we’re pleased that the Patrick Administration is moving in the right direction,” said Meg Sheehan, President of Biomass Accountability Project, in a prepared statement.
The Biomass Power Association’s Cleaves said the Patrick Administration was satisfying the complaints of “few individuals who have their facts wrong.”
“There is considerable scientific consensus indicating that biomass using wood waste materials releases far fewer GHG emissions and other harmful substances than fossil fuels,” Cleaves said.
DOER officials hope the restrictions will encourage the biomass industry to design smaller projects for combined heat and power (CHP) units, which can provide heat and electricity for industrial parks and community districts. The Manomet study found that CHP would reduce GHGs 25% by 2050.
Biomass-coal as Fuel
Massachusetts’ approach to biomass regulation differs dramatically from other states in the Southeast U.S., which leads the country in biomass power and wood pellet production. The North Carolina Utilities Commission approved renewable energy credits for wood chips from whole trees when combined with coal. Duke Energy’s lobbying effort for the credits was opposed by the Environmental Defense Fund.
The NRDC’s Greene said supplementing coal with biomass could reduce GHGs if the feedstock is not based whole trees.
“Wood is problematic because it takes so bloody long to grow, and there’s energy required for chipping and drying,” he said.
Burning coal and biomass efficiently is challenging, too. The Southern Research Institute’s Clean Energy Technology Development Center announced this week that its solution for Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) systems has improved the process of burning coal with biomass. The technology was developed through collaboration among the U.S. Department of Energy, Southern Research and Denmark-based TK Energi A/S.
According to a press release, the group’s prototype feeder creates a highly-compressed "plug" of coal and biomass that could ultimately become eligible for RECs. The material is comprised of bituminous and lignite coal, woody biomass, prairie grass and corn stover. Researchers said the plugs are a breakthrough for IGCC power plants because they can withstand 450 pounds per square inch of pressure as the material feeds into a gasifier.
Greene said Southern Research’s use of grass shows potential for acceptance by environmental groups.
“It’s possibly a good idea because of the quick carbon cycling with perennial grasses and agricultural residue,” Greene said. “Most of what we do today with woody biomass production is grossly inefficient.”