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Proposed Massachusetts Rules Would Require More Efficient Biomass Energy Plants

Waste wood from a logging operation that's been chopped into "chips" for a biomass facility.
Annie Ropeik
Waste wood from a logging operation that's been chopped into "chips" for a biomass facility.

Proposed changes to Massachusetts regulations would make a controversial wood-burning power plant planned for Springfield ineligible for renewable energy credits and would require all new biomass projects to be more efficient.

The Baker administration put forward a new set of changes to the state's Renewable Portfolio Standard regulations Friday that are specific to biomass plants like the Palmer Renewable Energy project that opponents say would be one of the most significant polluters in western Massachusetts and would contribute to pollution in an environmental justice community that already ranks as the worst place in the U.S. to live with asthma.

"The updates to the RPS regulations today make a key change. Biomass projects are now prohibited from qualifying for the RPS program if they are located within an environmental justice community or within five miles of an environmental justice community. They will not be eligible for the program," Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides said. "At the same time, we will also be requiring all new biomass units going into operation after December 31 of 2020 to meet the overall 60% efficiency requirement regardless of the type of biomass they're using."

The RPS governs the increasing amount of clean energy that utilities — and now municipal light plants — must purchase each year. Rules that have been in place since 2012 make only efficient combined-heat-and-power biomass plants eligible to sell renewable energy credits into the RPS market.

But the Department of Energy Resources issued a revised set of regulations last year that would have allowed biomass facilities to be eligible for the RPS if they used non-forest derived biomass, things like sawdust and utility clearings. That could have made the Springfield project eligible, DOER Commissioner Patrick Woodcock said.

Under the revised version of those regulations released Friday, Woodcock said, no new facility that would be less than 60% efficient could be eligible. He said the Springfield project, as proposed, would be roughly 30% efficient.

Earlier this month, the state Department of Environmental Protection revoked the Springfield facility's air plan approval "due to a lack of continuous construction as required in state regulation, the nine years that have lapsed since the air plan's approval, and public health and Environmental Justice concerns." 

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