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Editorial

New biomass rules demand cleaner, more efficient plants

September 30, 2011

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THERE COULD be a place for wood-burning power plants in Massachusetts, but not until the biomass power industry establishes new ways of producing energy that waste fewer trees and spew less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That is the message the Patrick administration is expected to send when it releases new regulations for the biomass industry this fall. Both the biomass industry and environmental groups have expressed dissatisfaction over drafts of the regulations, but the proposals stake out a wise position for the state - ensuring that inefficient power plants won’t be built in the Commonwealth while at the same time pushing the biomass industry to develop greener production practices.

The state’s new regulations are expected to grant partial subsidies to wood-burning plants that use 40 percent of what they burn to generate electricity, and full subsidies to those that reach a 60 percent threshold. Today, wood-burning plants strain to reach a 25 percent efficiency rate, so the regulations would effectively thwart the growth of such plants in New England until they become more efficient. This would represent a dramatic - and welcome - turnaround for Massachusetts, a state that once considered wood-burning power, paired with other earth-friendly energy sources like wind and solar, to be a central part of its renewable energy strategy.

The reversal began in 2010, when a state-funded study caught policy makers off guard by concluding that large, wood-burning power plants can release more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than those burning fossil fuels. The results sent shock waves through the energy industry - not just in New England, but worldwide. Thankfully, instead of turning a blind eye to its own scientific study, the state is rethinking its investment in wood-burning power despite the short-term economic costs.

Even so, environmental activists in the state are unhappy with the proposed regulations because they have been watered down since outlines of the rules were first released last year. The energy behind the environmentalists’ protests is well-founded: Burning trees to produce energy isn’t a smart, long-term solution for our impending energy crisis. But their solution - to offer subsidies only to wood-burning plants that reach 60 percent efficiency - would be comparable to the federal government only offering tax incentives to automobile companies that manufacture solar-powered cars. It’s a worthwhile, but unattainable, goal. Setting the standards too high would create no incentive for the biomass industry to invest in new technologies.

Even with its drawbacks, biomass energy production, when done in the right way, could help the state ease away from energy produced by fossil fuels. It may not be a perfect solution, but until solar and wind power become more widespread and reliable, every option should remain on the table.