Tougher rules rile ‘green’ power producers

New rules would require greater biomass-power efficiency. New rules would require greater biomass-power efficiency. (Bill Greene/Globe Staff/File 2009)
By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / October 25, 2010

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The wood-burning power industry is decrying proposed state rules that would severely limit the ability of such power plants to receive renewable-energy subsidies.

The disagreement erupts as scientific evidence is emerging that burning wood for electricity may not be as beneficial as originally believed in the fight against climate change.

But many in the forestry world dispute the scientific findings and say the new rules would be so restrictive they would prohibit virtually any new wood-burning, or biomass, plants in the future and lead to the loss of jobs.

“Massachusetts has proposed a rule that will have the sweeping effect of disqualifying almost 40 percent of the state’s current renewable-energy supply, with no sound scientific or economic policy justification,’’ said Bob Cleaves, chief executive of the Biomass Power Association.

“No one is saying you can’t do biomass, but doing it the way the regulations now say, financially, doesn’t make sense,’’ said Morris Housen, CEO of Erving Paper Mills in Erving.

He said his plant wanted to switch to burning wood for electricity and heat, but its output would not meet the energy-efficiency requirements to receive state financial credits under the proposed rules.

“Clearly it is too strict,’’ Housen said.

The new rules, among other things, would limit what kind of wood could go into biomass power plants and restrict how much of the treetops and branches left over from harvesting trees could be used.

They would also require a much higher degree of efficiency from the plants, which generally operate at about 25 percent efficiency. They would have to increase that to at least 40 percent to receive some subsidies and to 60 percent to receive all that are available.

Essentially, the regulations would require biomass power plants to use the heat generated from burning wood to boost their efficiency. Three biomass plants have been proposed in Western Massachusetts, and all may have difficulty finding a use for the heat to qualify for the credits.

Public comment on the draft rules ended Thursday, and final regulations are expected by year’s end.

The rules were proposed after more than two years of tumultuous debate over the burning of wood. Some residents argue that biomass plants would need so much wood they could strip Massachusetts of some of its forests. Biomass-industry officials denied they would destroy landscapes, saying their plan is mostly to use wood left over from traditional tree harvesting.

The controversy escalated earlier this year, when residents seeking to prohibit state credits for biomass plants collected enough signatures to place a question on next month’s ballot.

A state-commissioned study from the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences in Plymouth has also challenged the belief that biomass is a “green’’ energy source, because growing forests can absorb the same amount of greenhouse gases that are emitted from burning wood.

The study showed it would take far longer than originally thought for biomass power production to become carbon-neutral.

The state immediately began drafting new rules, and advocates agreed to drop the ballot question.

The study prompted an immediate need to reexamine state rules, said Sue Reid of the Conservation Law Foundation, a Boston-based advocacy group, because “there were incentives geared to something that all of a sudden appeared could be counterproductive.’’

“When biomass is not done correctly,’’ she said, “there is a double whammy — reducing the ability of our forests to absorb greenhouse gases while also contributing bursts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere from the power generation.’’

But the biomass industry says the scientific issues are not settled, and it has submitted reams of technical comments challenging the state.

People in the forest industry say the proposed rules have come too fast — and with little input from them.

“We support reasonable regulations,’’ said Fred Heyes, a land and sawmill owner in Orange. “What bothers me the most is that all concerned parties didn’t get together and work deliberatively’’ to come up with a more moderate solution.

Ian Bowles, secretary for Energy and Environmental Affairs, said the state has worked hard to come up with thoughtful rules.

He said the 2008 Massachusetts greenhouse-gas law requires officials to analyze state programs to ensure greenhouse-gas goals are met.

In that context, the state commissioned the Manomet study.

“What part of the process appears to be rushed?’’ he said.

“Our job is not to be responsive to the wishes of the biomass industry but to call balls and strikes on environmental impacts’’ on technologies related to the greenhouse-gas law.

Beth Daley can be reached at