Environmental activists protest Massachusetts' proposed regulations on wood-burning power plants, say revised rules too weak, argue stricter standards should be required for plants to receive state subsidies; facilities' owners claim regulations too harsh
September 20, 2011
– Environmental activists are protesting what they say is the weakening of state regulations governing wood-burning power plants in Massachusetts, even as the facilities' owners said the regulations are too harsh.
Activists from more than a dozen groups including the Sierra Club, MassAudubon and the Conservation Law Foundation, said Monday that regulations proposed by the Patrick administration undermine the state's commitment to green energy.
They say the administration should require the plants to adhere to stricter efficiency standards before receiving state subsidies.
Sue Reid, director of the Conservation Law Foundation-Massachusetts, said her group supported regulations outlined by the administration last year. A newer draft version of those regulations released earlier this year eases up on the limits placed on the plants, she said.
Under the newer proposal, she said, plants must burn at 40 percent overall efficiency to earn half a renewable energy tax credit from the state and 60 percent efficiency for a full credit. The tax credits are vital to making the plants economically feasible.
Allowing the 40 percent threshold weakens the regulations, Reid said.
Tougher regulations are needed given that the biomass energy facilities rely on cutting down trees, which absorb carbon dioxide, then turn around and burn the wood, releasing more of the carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to the greenhouse effect, advocates said.
"We have an historic opportunity to put an end to the double whammy ... of both instant harm and enduring harm," Reid said.
Wood power advocates have called the stricter standards arbitrary and unscientific and said they would make it harder for the plants to be economically viable.
Even the draft regulations unveiled in May go too far, according to Matthew Wolfe, an executive with Cambridge-based Madera Energy Inc., which is developing a biomass plant in Greenfield, one of several planned in western Massachusetts.
"They have essentially made biomass-to-electricity plants uneconomical," Wolfe said. "They are completely unattainable."
The final regulations have yet to be announced.
Gov. Deval Patrick told reporters on Monday that he did not believe his administration was backtracking.
"The choice that seems to be being debated right now is between an aggressive standard and an impossible standard and I think an aggressive standard is the right standard for us."
A state study in 2008 envisioned wood power contributing more megawatt hours of renewable electricity than either solar power or onshore wind by 2020.
Wood power's problems came as the state changed its views on wood's carbon emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions must be drastically cut by 2050 under Massachusetts law.
A state-commissioned report last year by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences indicated that burning a certain type of wood at large-scale plants would give off more carbon emissions by 2050 than coal-fired plants.
In response, the state promised to write stricter rules for the wood-burning plants. Activists then dropped a planned ballot question that would have required the tighter rules.
Massachusetts' proposed rules now demand unprecedented efficiency from large wood-burning power plants to qualify for renewable energy credits that such plants need to be financially viable.
Right now, the plants would operate at about 25 percent efficiency. The new rules say they must operate at 40 percent efficiency to qualify for even half a credit.
Wolfe said biomass developers just want the final regulations to be announced so they can start making decisions about whether to move ahead or not.
"We're hoping that after two years, they release the regulations so we have some certainty," he said.
© 2017 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.