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Biomass Burning Rules in Massachusetts Could Have National Impact

Greens applaud proposed rules, industry and unions stand opposed

By Stacy Feldman

Sep 21, 2010

In a move that could have wide ramifications for the future of biomass power nationwide, Massachusetts regulators have proposed to strictly regulate the ability of wood-burning incinerators to earn renewable power certificates.

It's 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. 

The by the — unveiled late Friday — would require biomass incinerators to become 60 percent more efficient in order to earn full renewable energy credits and 40 percent to get a fraction of them. It would force a 50 percent cut in planet-warming gases from biomass plants by 2030 compared to fossil fuels, and limit the sorts of "residues" and waste wood that can be burned "to discourage the poor forest management practice."

Final regulations are expected be in place by the end of the year.

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 , told SolveClimate News.

Still, McCaffrey said the efficiency standard is not tough enough to ensure that facilities' combustion emissions are better than coal'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."

He added: "Only the most non-devastating to the natural environment, most efficient and best designed facilities should be eligible for consideration."

Chris Matera, founder of , also welcomed the proposed regulations, with some caveats.

"These are a step in the right direction," he told SolveClimate News, but added that he sees them as more of a "speed bump" than a roadblock.

"They may end up making it difficult, or impossible, for the big electric plants to get the RECs [renewable energy credits]." However, he said, the regulations would bolster smaller combined heat and power plants that are more efficient than larger power-only plants, potentially sparking a new generation of facilities.

"We could end up with a whole bunch of little plants, which could be just as bad or even worse."

Controversial Study Sparks Change

Biomass electricity burns wood chips and forest debris to generate power. According to the (BPA), a group in Portland, Maine, which represents about 100 plants in 20 states, it's a $1 billion a year industry.

The technology is already a mainstay of energy production, BPA says. According to the Department of Energy, biomass could supply 14 percent of the nation's total power needs by 2030, up from about one percent today.

In Massachusetts, BPA says the fuel source makes up 50 percent of the state's renewable energy supply. The technology qualifies as clean power under most state renewable portfolio policies.

But environmentalists have long been concerned. They say encouraging biomass production creates incentives to cut down carbon-absorbing forests to make fuel, driving deforestation and worsening warming.


"We're going to be leaving an awful lot of tops and branches out into he woods ... That stuff has to come out," he said. "That's the fuel you'd use in the [biomass] plant. In some cases, Mother Nature would use that same fuel in the forest."

sound great but how is real picture?

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