Last week, the Patrick Administration released new proposed final rules and guidance on the state’s incentives for biomass energy. It is a big win for our forests, for the role of science in policy making, for efficiency, and for environmental advocates across Massachusetts. I’m proud of the Patrick administration for their tireless work on this issue.
So, what exactly IS biomass? Generally speaking, in the energy context, “biomass” refers to a class of fuels derived from trees and plants. Other types of biomass fuel are organic wastes such as livestock manure, spoiled food, and even sewage. These fuels are, in turn, converted into various forms of useful energy (electricity, heat, transportation fuels) by a very broad spectrum of established and emerging technologies.
When we hear about biomass energy, most often the focus is on large electric power plants. There are many such biomass power plant proposals pending throughout New England, including several in Massachusetts. We hear about them in the news, but rarely is there much talk about why so many biomass power plants are in the permitting pipeline right now. Although not often noted, the reality is that these projects are responding to state and federal economic incentives.
One might assume that state and federal biomass incentives are specifically designed to promote projects consistent with our clean energy and climate objectives, right? Unfortunately, that has not been the case.
Understanding of the substantial potential climate and environmental impacts of biomass power plants has lagged behind the incentive programs. When the incentive programs were created, no one was focused on the potential climate impacts of building power plants that burn whole trees to produce electricity, for example. The thinking was that if a tree were used as fuel, it simply needed to be replaced with a newly planted tree and – voila! – some of our energy needs would be met with a “renewable” fuel.
To the contrary, as we now understand, burning whole trees as fuel results in a climate “double whammy”:
- Instantaneously releasing all the carbon stored in each tree into the atmosphere; while also
- Taking whole trees out of commission as carbon “sinks,” no longer capturing and storing new carbon emissions.
Thankfully, the last few years have provided a huge wake-up call. We’ve seen an increasing body of peer-reviewed science about the potential climate impacts of irresponsible use of biomass energy. The forward-looking Patrick Administration itself commissioned a groundbreaking study, culminating in the 2010 “Manomet Report,” to bring that science home to Massachusetts in the context of a hard look at better-designed state incentives for biomass. And now, just last week, the Patrick Administration released new proposed final rules and guidance that infuse this science into the state’s biomass incentives. You can read a copy of CLF’s official statement here.
From a preliminary review, we are delighted to see that the newly proposed Massachusetts rules embrace the three key pillars of responsible policy governing biomass incentives:
- Adopting science-based standards to seriously account for the climate impacts of eligible biomass facilities and the fuels they use, and ensuring that incentives no longer will be directed toward projects that can seriously undermine our climate objectives;
- Curbing wasteful use of limited biomass resources by requiring most eligible facilities to meet a minimum efficiency standard of 50-60% (as compared to many existing facilities that are in the range of only 25% efficient);
- Protecting forests against over harvesting of biomass fuels, for example by prohibiting the harvest of fuels from old growth forests or steep slopes that are vulnerable to erosion, requiring minimum amounts of tree tops and limbs to be retained on the forest floor to replenish nutrients and provide habitat, etc.
Hats off to the Patrick Administration and the team of policymakers who worked tirelessly to infuse the science into such an important policy! They appear to have done a remarkable job balancing many competing interests and considerations, setting a standard that we hope other states and the nation will follow.