NORTHAMPTON — Proposed changes to state renewable energy regulations have created controversy and re-ignited a debate about biomass.
Like many other states, Massachusetts has a renewable energy portfolio regulation that requires a certain percent of the electricity sold by utilities to be renewable. Each year, the required renewable energy was mandated to increase by one percent, and a law passed last year bumped the required increase to two percent annually for the next decade starting in 2020.
Now, the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources has drafted regulatory changes that include eliminating efficiency requirements for biomass facilities that receive credits for using fuel that’s more than 95 percent damaged or dead trees. These fuels include trees that would have otherwise been cut down for land clearing or wood removed from the maintenance of places like parks and highways.
Currently, all biomass facilities must reach at least 50 percent efficiency overall to receive any renewable energy credit, according to the DOER.
Some environmental groups — including many in western Massachusetts — oppose the proposed rule and say that it is a step backward in fighting climate change, while others support the rule.
When the state decided to up the yearly increase in renewable energy, “this is not what people had in mind,” said Mary Booth director of environmental group Partnership for Policy Integrity in Pelham. “People don’t want more stuff coming out of a smokestack when they think of renewable energy.”
Classifying the energy made from burning wood as renewable has been disputed by climate groups. Chris Egan, executive director of the Massachusetts Forest Alliance, said he and his group supports the proposed changes. The group “represents and advocates on behalf of forest landowners, industry professionals, businesses, and others who support a strong, sustainable forest economy in the Commonwealth,” according to its website.
“Our feeling is that there is widespread misunderstanding about what the changes actually do. We’ve heard a lot of people talk about how this will increase wood coming out of the forest — that’s just not the case,” he said.
Egan said most changes apply to wood from dead trees or maintenance of roads and parks.
“People don’t understand there’s a huge amount of wood being created in Massachusetts — it’s a staggering amount,” Egan said. The changes, he said, could further incentivize putting the material to use.”
The state is accepting comments from the public, and the DOER has already held several hearings on the proposed regulations over the last month in Amherst, Springfield, Gardner and Boston. Initially, the deadline to comment was in early June, but the state extended it to July 26 after many requests for an extension.
Booth pointed to a 2010 study on biomass commissioned by the DOER. It found that biomass facilities release more carbon dioxide into the air per unit of energy created than coal, oil, or natural gas. The study found that over time, new tree growth can theoretically recapture enough carbon dioxide to offset the initial pollution.
Charlie Thompson, a retired forestland manager who lives in Pelham, agreed that there is a lot of excess wood from natural causes like storm damage.
“We’re using fossil fuels right now to truck wood far away because there’s nothing to do with it,” he said. “If there’s a modern way to use it for something, then it seems really silly for me not to,” he said.
Thompson, a member of the Massachusetts Forest Alliance, testified at a hearing about a week ago in Springfield in favor of the proposed rule changes. He said he thinks the regulations are “unnecessarily complicated.”
Some worry that the changes will pave the way for Palmer Renewable Energy’s proposed biomass-fired power plant in Springfield.
Most of the facility’s fuel will be wood from tree pruning and land cleaning and not from “forestry operations,” according to documents on the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s website.
Katy Pyle, an organizer at Arise for Social Justice, a group in Springfield opposing the changes, worries that the facility would emit particulate matter, small particles that can be harmful to human health.
“Springfield has one of the highest asthma rates in the country,” Pyle said, referencing the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America’s 2018 report that called the city the asthma capital of the country. “So we’re really concerned about anything that’s releasing particulate matter into the air which our residents are going to be breathing.”
The state classifies the population near the proposed biomass plant as an environmental justice community, a designation given to areas that are at least 25 percent people of color, where the income level is 65 percent or less than the state average, or where 25 percent or more of the households “have no one over the age of 14 who speaks English only or very well.”
Mary Jones, a community organizer in the Northampton office of Toxics Action Center, echoed Pyle’s concerns. The group also opposes the changes.
“I think the proposed changes would impact Springfield first and worst,” she said.
“Because air does not stay confined to city limits, it’s going to affect all of us in the Connecticut River Valley,” Jones said, adding that because of the area’s topography, “molecules get trapped here … All of us are going to be breathing these consequences.”
The DOER anticipates making a final decision later this year or in early 2020, according to the state agency.
Greta Jochem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.