State includes wood, biomass in alternative energy standards

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Wednesday, December 20, 2017

PELHAM — The state’s Department of Energy Resources has filed its proposed final version of guidelines that will allow the burning of tree material, as well as other technologies, to qualify for financial incentives as renewable energy sources.

The final draft regulations, which were filed on Friday, provide subsidies for “woody biomass” — in other words, the burning of wood chips or pellets made from trees and cleared brush. As part of a 2014 law backed by the logging industry, the state has included biomass boilers in its “Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard,” or APS. Other technologies in the portfolio include geothermal and solar thermal.

The APS was intended to “contribute to the Commonwealth’s clean energy goals by increasing energy efficiency and reducing the need for conventional fossil fuel-based power generation,” according to a description on the state’s website. Many environmentalists, however, have condemned the new rules on biomass, which they see as likely to increase greenhouse gas emissions, as well as pollution and deforestation.

“On every level that you look at this thing, it’s bad from our perspective,” Laura Haight, senior policy director at Pelham’s Partnership for Policy Integrity, told the Gazette. “From the biomass industry’s perspective it is great.”

Haight’s group as criticized the inclusion of biomass, citing research that shows biomass can produce more greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels. Critics have also raised concerns over the wood-smoke pollution created when burning biomass, and say the state’s proposed financial incentives may lead to the clear-cutting of forests.

Other local groups to have previously criticized the inclusion of biomass include the Pioneer Valley Asthma Coalition, Concerned Citizens of Franklin County, the American Lung Association and the Greater Boston Physicians for Responsibility.

Help for landowners

Patrick Woodcock, the state’s assistant secretary for energy, said Tuesday that the state has seen progress reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the electric sector, but not as much in transportation or the way its buildings are heated. These new regulations, he said, are meant to address the latter.

“The Legislature implemented a policy that provides similar credits for renewable sources that displace the natural gas and oil that we consume to heat our buildings,” Woodcock said, referring to the 2014 law from which these guidelines originate.

Woodcock said the new financial incentives give landowners an income stream from low-grade wood, which otherwise is put in a landfill or left to decompose in the woods. That income, he said, could also prevent landowners from selling land to developers, who he said pose a greater threat to the state’s forests.

Environmental groups have also raised the issue that wood providers from other states won’t necessarily follow the guidelines that Massachusetts puts in place for tree harvesting.

That’s important because, according to Woodcock, around three-quarters of those wood products are coming from other states and countries, and they determine what forestry practices can be used. Woodcock conceded that the APS guidelines themselves wouldn’t create a sustainable forest product industry everywhere, but he said they would raise the bar for Massachusetts landowners and companies.

Sustainable, renewable

Beyond landowners, those in the logging and biomass industry have also welcomed the subsidies that will benefit their businesses.

“To me it certainly is a worthwhile inclusion to have biomass,” said Jim Van Valkenburgh, the vice president of sales and marketing at Froling Energy, which designs, installs and commissions biomass heating projects across the northeast.

“We have to admit that we’re emitting just as much carbon as oil does, just on first glance,” he said. However, he characterized woody biomass as a sustainable, renewable energy, and said it will benefit economies in more rural and remote parts of the state.

“This is a choice that is a better choice than burning oil,” he said.

But in an era of runaway climate change, critics say that substituting one greenhouse gas for another isn’t good enough.

A hotly debated, state-commissioned report found in 2010 that biomass “generally emits more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels per unit of energy produced,” but that the effects of biomass on carbon emissions depend on a slew of factors like the forest management practices that landowners use, as well as what technology biomass is replacing.

“These regulations will result in higher emissions for at least the next 30 years,” Haight said. “You’re providing financial incentives for more greenhouse gas emissions for a program that was supposed to reduce greenhouse gases.”

Reducing carbon emissions is no small matter for the administration of Gov. Charlie Baker, who was the first Republican governor to join the U.S. Climate Alliance. The coalition is committed to upholding the 2015 Paris climate accord after President Donald Trump announced he would withdraw the United States from the landmark deal.

What’s more, as part of the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act, Massachusetts is required to lower greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Some have expressed skepticism that the administration will be able to meet those requirements, despite the state’s highest court ruling last year that the state must enact policies that meet them.

With these new biomass rules, Haight said, reducing greenhouse gases will be even more difficult now.

The regulations, however, are all but final, and will become official after Department of Energy Resources publishes them in the state register, which it expects to do on Dec. 29. There will be a program review in two years, when changes could potentially be made to the guidelines, according to Woodcock.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.