REMEMBER THE BIG FIGHT about biomass as renewable energy in Massachusetts in the mid-2000s? We’re in the middle of another one.

About 10 years ago, the Massachusetts Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) still classified what were essentially tree-burning power plants as renewable, making them eligible for lucrative renewable energy subsidies. At that time, three large biomass power plants were proposed in Massachusetts, drawing protest from scientists, citizens, and activists who disputed the treatment of biomass power as “carbon neutral.”

In response, the Patrick administration commissioned a scientific study that determined burning forest wood for electricity does indeed undermine emission reduction goals. In line with the findings of the study, the state enacted regulations in 2012 that restricted biomass energy to small, high-efficiency plants, and stopped subsidies to highly polluting wood-burners in other states. It took four years and thousands of hours of volunteered time by scientists and activists to secure those regulations.

However, the Baker administration is now poised to roll back the hard-won, science-based regulations on bioenergy from 2012.  The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources is quietly seeking to jettison these forest and climate protections in proposed changes to the RPS regulations.

The RPS requires that, each year, an increasing amount of renewable power come from renewable sources. Last year Massachusetts enacted a law that accelerates the annual RPS increase to 2 percent per year so that the state will reach 35 percent in 2030. Clean energy advocates saw this as an important step towards decarbonizing our grid (although it still falls far short of what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says is needed to constrain dangerous temperature rise).

But the Department of Energy Resources has proposed a massive rewrite of the regulations that will overturn previous restrictions on bioenergy and allow large, inefficient wood-burning power plants to qualify for renewable energy subsidies under the RPS.  The regulations appear to even allow the dirtiest plants in Maine and New Hampshire to qualify for renewable energy subsidies in Massachusetts.

Not unlike the Trump administration’s gutting of the federal EPA, the Baker administration seems determined to eliminate science-based regulations and replace them with regulations that promote the industries they regulate.

The Department of Energy Resource’s proposed changes, purportedly aimed to “streamline” the RPS regulations, undermine the purpose of the RPS:

  • The current RPS regulations on bioenergy restrict renewable energy subsidies to combined heat and power plants that can show a reduction in cumulative emissions relative to fossil fueled plants over 20 years. (As wood-burning plants emit more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than fossil fueled plants, the “reduction” arises under the assumption that forests grow back after being cut for fuel, or, that biomass is sourced from residues that would decompose anyway and emit carbon dioxide even if not burned for energy). Given the urgency of the climate crisis, that timeframe should be reduced to 10 years. Instead, the administration seeks to lengthen the timeframe to 30 years.
  • The proposed regulations will reduce the efficiency requirement to get subsidies overall, and eliminate it altogether for some plants, enabling the construction of large electricity-only power plants that were eliminated under the 2012 regulations. This provision also appears to open the door to importing biomass electricity from low-efficiency and polluting plants out of state.
  • Wood pellet manufacture, and even the harvesting and transport of green wood chips, typically entails fossil fuel burning. The Department of Energy Resource’s proposal eliminates the requirement to count these emissions as part of the greenhouse gas footprint of biomass.
  • By redefining and broadening terms such as “forest salvage,” “residues,” and “thinnings,” the proposed regulations greatly increase the eligibility of healthy stands of trees as fuel for subsidized biomass plants.

Massachusetts and New England are already falling short of our emission reduction goals. Subsidizing wood-burning, which pumps more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than fossil fuels, is profoundly counterproductive when we should instead be going all out to incentivize only zero-emissions energy.

The proposed RPS rewrite is a betrayal of climate science, forest protection, and the intent of the Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions Act. If the Department of Energy Resource’s proposed rollback of our science-based regulations is allowed to occur, it will tarnish Massachusetts’ reputation as a climate leader and thwart broad-based and critical efforts to protect our climate, our forests, and our future.

Mary S. Booth is the director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity in Pelham.