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All Biomass Is Not Created Equal, At Least in Massachusetts

Controversy as the state sets deadline for accurate and full accounting of biomass emissions

By Elizabeth McGowan

Jul 12, 2010

WASHINGTON—If the science behind burning wood as fuel were as black and white as a third-grader’s multiplication tables, it never would have sparked such fiery exchanges in Massachusetts. Lack of such simplicity, however, puts the unfolding debate into a category grownups often label “that messy gray area.”

As the Bay State grapples with downsizing its carbon footprint, authorities initially opted to allow biomass power plants to receive healthy incentives as part of the state’s renewable portfolio standard.

But that evidently changed this week when the state’s top environment official ordered the Massachusetts Department of Energy to tighten those rules and be stricter with the types of wood-burning power plants that qualify for green credits. 

“In light of the Manomet study, we have a deeper understanding that the greenhouse gas impacts of biomass energy are far more complicated than the conventional view that electricity from power plants using biomass harvested from New England natural forests is carbon neutral,” Ian Bowles wrote in his July 7 letter. “Our policy should reflect this current science.”

His four-page directive drew cheers from a Massachusetts advocacy organization and boos from a biomass trade association, with EPA deliberating what it should do about biomass at the federal level come a January 2nd deadline.

The chairwoman of the Stop Spewing Carbon Ballot Campaign announced that even though her group had collected 120,000 signatures, it has dumped its push for an anti-biomass November ballot initiative now that regulation for biomass plants will have to meet tougher standards for forest protection, heat-trapping gases and efficiency.

“This is a groundbreaking development that means an end to commercial biomass electric power plants in Massachusetts,” Meg Sheehan wrote in a July 7 news release. “Ending renewable energy credits for dirty incinerators was the central goal of our ballot question and we have won.”

But Bob Cleaves, chief executive officer of the Maine-based Biomass Power Association, was nowhere near as elated. Bowles jumped the gun by not waiting for public comments to be reviewed, he said.

“As a matter of rulemaking, this is nothing short of bizarre,” Cleaves told SolveClimate Thursday, adding that he’s still digesting the contents of the letter. “Instead of going to the voters of Massachusetts, agency officials decided they would resolve it themselves. With this, Massachusetts is setting the bar so far and high that it will potentially prohibit production of biomass in New England.”

Study Spawned Controversy

Under the Global Warming Solutions Act, Massachusetts is required to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. Biomass, along with solar, wind and geothermal are all part of the state’s portfolio of renewable energy sources. That had prompted the Gov. Deval Patrick administration to invest in four proposed wood-burning plants in communities in the western half of the state—Springfield, Greenfield, Pittsfield and Russell.

To gain a grip on what the state’s biomass policy should be, Department of Energy authorities commissioned a local nonprofit group to explain the science of generating electricity from waste wood.

Initially, however, the study released in June by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences seemed to create more confusion than clarity. The way results were presented by report writers and the media left the public puzzled as to whether burning biomass is “carbon neutral” or “worse than coal.”

A deeper dive into the report shows that the outcome depends on the source of the biomass, and how it is transported and converted to energy. Indeed, burning whole trees could lead to deforestation and higher carbon emissions than coal-fired electricity by 2050. But burning tree limbs from timber harvests reveals a 2050 carbon neutral scenario—even though Massachusetts doesn’t have a timber industry that’s substantial enough to supply the required amount of fuel.

Where Massachusetts Might Be Headed

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