Massachusetts Restricts Dirty Biopower

It’s been a busy few weeks in the biomass world.  Today in Massachusetts, the Patrick administration released its final rules governing eligible biomass under the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard.  And recently, the Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) advising the EPA on bioenergy released its long-awaited report.  Both the SAB report and the Massachusetts regulations show that it is possible to craft robust policies that distinguish between good and bad biomass - to help reduce climate pollution, not make it worse.

First the Massachusetts regulations: The new rules ensure that the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard rewards only biopower 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.  The Patrick administration should be applauded for its bold, science-based policies.

These standards are important because they distinguish between good biomass over bad.  Study after study has shown that burning whole trees to produce electricity increases carbon pollution for many decades compared with fossil fuels including coal. 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.

The regulations are grounded in this science; different forms biomass fuels have different climate impacts and are treated differently.  The new rules require that biomass plants rely predominantly on “timber harvest residues” rather than whole trees and demonstrate emissions reductions of at least 50 percent over 20 years as compared to natural gas.

The Massachusetts model mirrors the findings of an expert panel that is advising the EPA on carbon accounting for biomass energy.  Last summer, EPA convened an 18-member panel of scientific experts (Biogenic Carbon Emissions Panel) to provide advice on rules for assessing the climate impacts of bioenergy combustion within the constraints of the Clean Air Act.  Earlier this month, that science panel released its long-awaited report.  The report confirms that not all biomass is created equal: all except one member of the science panel flatly rejects the flawed assumption that all biomass is carbon neutral.

It’s also critical that we protect our forests, and the regulations get it right here too.  While timber harvest operations are allowed to generate residues (tops and branches) dedicated for biomass burning, a portion of these residues must be retained in the forests to replenish soil nutrients and provide wildlife habitat. The rules also include measures to protect old growth forests, critical habitats, and sensitive soils.

These developments are pivotal in challenging the misguided assumption that biomass energy is categorically carbon neutral and renewable. This misconception is embedded in many existing renewable energy policies that promote biomass fuels uniformly for electricity production.  The Massachusetts regulations and the SAB report are a vitally important to drive sound policy reforms with utilities, states and with the EPA – all of whom play a critical role in getting biomass right.