Massachusetts Biomass Regulations: The Model for Getting Biomass Policy Right

Today, Massachusetts’s Governor Deval Patrick’s administration took bold leadership in announcing new standards to ensure that the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard rewards only biomass energy that reduces carbon emissions. These standards are the first in the world to set a performance requirement for biomass and are critical to reducing carbon emissions and protecting forests, both in Massachusetts and nationally.

These standards are important because they finally define and favor good biomass over bad.  Some biomass, such as sustainably produced energy crops like switchgrass grown on non-forested land, are a good thing — they can power our home while cutting carbon pollution.  But, unfortunately, we’re increasingly seeing a very damaging trend — burning whole trees to produce electricity.  This practice actually increases carbon emissions compared with fossil fuels for decades, and threatens our forest ecosystems as well.

In fact, in many states, there is now a perverse scenario where whole trees are counting as a renewable fuel and utilities are rewarded financially for generating bioenergy — while emitting more carbon pollution than coal plants!  Absurd, right?

So how did this bad practice of burning whole trees begin?  For many years, the common misconception has been that cutting and burning whole trees to generate electricity is “carbon neutral” and that forest biomass must reduce carbon emissions compared to fossil fuels — since forests re-grow.  However, several recent landmark studies have shown the opposite:  whole-tree biomass-fired power generation increases carbon emissions for many decades when compared with fossil fuels. (On the other hand, electricity generation fueled by short-rotation crops, wood waste and reclaimed wood, and timber harvest residues (tops and branches) can reduce carbon emissions and represents an appropriate alternative fuel source). 

Massachusetts has chosen to end that practice by ensuring all biomass credited under its Renewable Portfolio Standard actually reduces carbon emissions. And their standards could become the blueprint for how other states — and the EPA — deal with biomass moving forward. 

In making today’s decision, Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources relied on the Manomet Study of Woody Biomass Energy — one of the landmark studies noted above as its technical basis. 

Massachusetts’s standards include four main requirements, which together ensure that only the “right” types of biomass fuel — those that reduce carbon pollution — are eligible for credit under the Commonwealth’s Renewable Portfolio Standard:

  • Restrictions that limit “Eligible Biomass Woody Fuels” predominantly to timber harvest residues (tops and branches left after a logging operation) instead of whole trees from the operation.  Because these residues would normally decay and release their carbon very quickly on the forest floor, these fuel sources are in fact good from a carbon emissions standpoint.
  • A limit on the amount of eligible biomass residues removed from a forest site. This ensures that sufficient woody material is left on the forest floor for nutrient cycling and wildlife habitat.
  • A requirement that biomass-fired power plants conduct lifecycle emissions analyses and demonstrate emissions reductions of at least 50 percent over 20 years.  This establishes strict criteria for carbon accounting and ensures that actual reduction in emissions are being created.
  • A requirement that encourages the most efficient use of eligible biomass: overall efficiency of a biomass generation facility must be 50 percent to qualify for one-half Renewable Energy Credit (known as a “REC”) per megawatt hour of electricity, with credit increasing linearly to a full credit once overall efficiency hits 60% or above.

These safeguards will ensure that the Massachusetts RPS can keep driving wind and solar power forward aggressively without increasing carbon pollution, threatening our forests, or wasting scarce taxpayer dollars on more dirty fuels.  Taken as a whole, these regulations will greatly limit the ability of the industry to carry out whole-tree timber harvests to fuel biomass facilities.

The Patrick administration and the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources should be applauded for generating this sensible, science-based solution.  It will go a long way to ensuring that the Commonwealth meets its ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals.

Looking more broadly, nationwide, the Manomet study is the seminal analysis that challenges the assumption that biomass energy is categorically carbon neutral. This misconception is embedded in many existing renewable energy policies that promote biomass uniformly — leading to the absurd outcome that I noted at the beginning of this blog.  The Massachusetts regulations are a vitally important model to drive sound policy reforms with utilities, states and with the EPA — all of whom play a critical role in getting biomass right.