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Limits on biomass energy proposed

Damage from wood burning found in studies

By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / May 4, 2011

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Rules that would make constructing large wood-burning power plants in the state much more difficult were proposed yesterday by the Patrick administration.

If the regulations are made final, it could mean that three proposed large wood-burning, or biomass, plants in Russell, Springfield, and Greenfield would not be built because they would no longer be eligible for renewable energy credits that made them more competitive with traditional power sources. However, smaller plants that generate electricity and also use the heat are eligible and could be built.

“I suspect the [large-scale] power-generating-only facilities are not going to like these new regulations, because they will not be efficient enough to qualify for any’’ renewable credits, said Richard K. Sullivan Jr., secretary of energy and environmental affairs. But he said the rules were the product of “rigorous scientific study and a robust public process.’’

The proposed regulations will be reviewed by the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy for 30 days, before being reviewed for another 30 days by the Department of Energy Resources. That agency will then file the final rules with the secretary of state, to take effect early this summer.

While expected, the proposed rules are a stunning reversal for a power source the state once celebrated as so environmentally friendly it was considered a critical tool to battle man-made climate change. Wood burning has been promoted as a green energy source because growing forests can absorb the same amount of heat-trapping gases emitted by burning wood, essentially canceling out the pollutants.

But a 2010 study the state commissioned from the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences revealed a far different story, one that concluded the plants released more heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per unit of energy than oil, coal, or natural gas. The study also showed the greenhouse gases can take a far longer time for forests to absorb than previously thought.

Yesterday, biomass industry officials decried the proposed rules, saying the state’s decision could have far-reaching consequences for other renewable energy sources.

“We as an industry are deeply troubled where the Commonwealth induces investors to make large capital investment in renewable facilities only to change the rules in midstream,’’ said Bob Cleaves, president and chief executive officer of the Biomass Power Association. He still needs to review the rules in depth, Cleaves said. “If I was any renewable energy developer in the state I’d be worried I was next.’’

The draft rules would make it unlikely that existing biomass plants can qualify for renewable credits in the future, such as Schiller Station in New Hampshire, which converted one of its coal-burning boilers to wood, at least in part to take advantage of the energy credits.

Massachusetts has offered financial incentives for wood-burning power plants since 2002, considering them to be part of a portfolio of renewable power along with wind and solar. By 2020, state electricity suppliers will have to get 15 percent of their energy from green sources.

But when large wood-burning plants were first proposed in the state several years ago, a large and vocal group of residents opposed them, asserting they would be fueled by cutting trees on public and private lands across Massachusetts. The controversy reached a crescendo in 2009 when the state suspended incentives for new wood-burning power plants until the Manomet study was complete.

Without biomass, the state says, it will rely more on wind and solar projects.

Environmentalists praised the proposed rules, saying they were a brave stance.

“Our forests are not fuel,’’ said Massachusetts Sierra Club Director James McCaffrey. “Forest biomass is a carbon-spewing polluting form of energy. The science is now clear and recognizes the tremendous negative impacts of burning forests and trees to generate electricity.’’

Beth Daley can be reached at bdaley@globe.com.