HERE’S A QUICK tip for greening our heat and power: if you need to set it on fire, it isn’t clean.
That should be the guiding principle for the state’s new Commission on Clean Heat, which could finally shed some light on a sector rife with methane leaks, oil spills, and wood smoke. Skeptics may wonder if the commission is a way for Gov. Charlie Baker to slow-walk measures to curb pollution from heating systems, but a bigger concern is the administration’s ongoing and relentless promotion of dirty climate solutions, particularly biomass energy.
While many citizens may be aware of controversy around the Massachusetts Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) making biomass power plants eligible for millions of dollars in subsidies, probably fewer know that the MA Alternative Portfolio Standard (APS) also subsidizes biomass power plants, as well as residential and commercial wood heating.
New changes to the RPS biomass rules proposed by Baker will roll back air quality, climate, and forest protections that were enacted in 2012 after a painstaking four-year process. One of the most shocking changes is the new rules will allow inefficient and polluting biomass plants in northern New England to once again qualify for millions each year in publicly funded subsidies, reversing the 2012 prohibition on such support.
As a concession to activists and scientists and an acknowledgement of how polluting wood-burning is, the new RPS rules will prevent biomass plants within five miles of environmental justice communities in Massachusetts from receiving subsidies. Meanwhile, similarly polluting power plants and residential and commercial heating units can still qualify for subsidies under the APS, with no restrictions on where they are built.
Pollutants from wood smoke, especially fine particulate matter, contribute to a wide range of acute and chronic health problems, including asthma, heart disease, cancer, birth defects, and most recently increased risk of mortality from COVID-19. Although less than 2 percent of homes in the state heat with wood, the Enviromental Protection Agency’s most recent national emissions inventory data show that wood heating accounted for 83 percen% of all particulate matter emissions from the heating sector in Massachusetts, and a lung-choking 22 percent of the state’s overall particulate matter emissions.
The biomass industry wants people to believe that “modern wood heating” promoted by the APS presents a solution, but a recent assessment of EPA’s residential wood heater certification program is a scathing indictment, finding “EPA’s certification program to ensure new wood heaters meet clean air requirements is dysfunctional” – and has been for more than 30 years.
There isn’t much criticism of the biomass industry inside the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, where the renewable energy division employs happy warriors determined to smooth the way for increased wood burning around the Commonwealth. The revolving door with the biomass industry is operating smoothly, too: Renewable Heating Solutions describes wood heating as “a market recently invigorated by the promulgation of state regulations related to renewable heating,” regulations that the company’s president actually helped to write when he was previously employed by DOER.
The Baker administration’s biomass policies sully our state’s leadership on climate and the environment. We hope the new Commission on Clean Heat will recognize that the state’s current renewable energy policies are subsidizing heating technologies that are anything but clean. In the meantime, since DOER has demonstrated they cannot be trusted to enact science-based policies on biomass, the state Legislature must immediately take action to cut off the flow of renewable energy subsidies to the biomass industry.
Of particular importance is legislation introduced by Sens. Eric P. Lesser and Adam Gomez and Reps. Jay D. Livingstone and Orlando Ramos, which would remove subsidies for woody biomass heating and power altogether. Passing this legislation will expand opportunities for wind, solar, and geothermal heating, cleaner technologies that do not create the same liabilities to our health and climate.
As for Baker, Massachusetts residents can share a simple message with our state’s chief executive: don’t send our climate progress up in flames.
Mary Booth is director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, which provides science and legal support so that citizen groups, environmental organizations, and policymakers can better understand energy development impacts on air quality, water quality, ecosystems, and climate.