Health & wellness

State clamps down on wood-burning plants

Regulations raise bar on efficiency

Power plants that produce electricity by burning wood will have to become significantly more efficient to receive state subsidies under long-anticipated regulations released Friday, jeopardizing new projects and making it difficult for existing plants to continue operating.

Patrick administration officials, however, said they are eager for new plants using more advanced technology to be built and set lower efficiency standards for such facilities to encourage their development.

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The regulations - hailed by environmental advocates and panned by the wood-burning industry - also set a higher bar for the so-called biomass plants to qualify for renewable energy credits, meaning they will have to be more efficient to claim state subsidies designed to promote renewable energy.

The regulations, set to take effect in coming weeks after more than a year of controversy over previously proposed rules, also make it harder for plant operators to collect fuel. They will have to use fewer whole trees from thinned forests, and a portion of the tops and branches of harvested trees will have to remain in forests to replenish the soil.

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“We believe these regulations are based on sound science, our greenhouse gas goals, and will have a positive impact on the economy and protect sustainable foresting,’’ said Mark Sylvia, commissioner of the state Department of Energy Resources.

Industry officials said the regulations would be likely to result in the termination of three large biomass plants proposed in Russell, Springfield, and Greenfield and could have an impact on existing plants throughout New England, which qualify for the credits because they provide power to the region’s electrical grid. State officials said there is only one large existing biomass plant in Massachusetts, the 20-year-old Pinetree Power plant in Westminster, which generates 17 megawatts of power.

“We’re obviously disappointed,’’ said Bob Cleaves, president of Biomass Power Association, a Portland, Maine-based national trade association for the biomass industry. He said “the rules are unachievable for electricity-only biomass plants’’ and operators would have to build plants that generate both heat and power. “We’re not sure that’s achievable,’’ he said.

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He said Massachusetts will be the only state with such restrictive rules on biomass plants.

“These rules will stop new development in New England and cause the closure of existing power plants,’’ he said, though he noted that existing plants have until 2016 to comply with the new requirements. “Massachusetts essentially has changed the rules in the middle of the game.’’

The regulations constitute a major reversal for a power source the state once considered critical to combating human-induced climate change. Wood burning had been seen as a source of green energy, because replacement trees could be planted and allow forests to absorb the carbon dioxide emitted by burning wood, canceling out the pollutants.

But a 2010 study the state, commissioned from the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, revealed that it takes much longer than previously thought for forests to absorb the greenhouse gases. It also found the biomass plants released more heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere per unit of energy than oil, coal, or natural gas.

Since then, environmental advocates have urged the administration to scale back its plans to rely on biomass as a means to achieve its goal of reducing greenhouse gases 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

On Friday, they lauded the administration for taking a harder line.

“These regulations are truly groundbreaking,’’ said Sue Reid, director of the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston. “The old rules seriously risked unraveling the state’s ambitious targets on climate by promoting projects that put more carbon pollution into the air. Recognizing those risks, the Patrick administration has developed nation-leading rules that embrace the core principles of sound biomass policy: The new rules will promote far more efficient use of biomass fuel, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and protection of critical forest resources.’’

‘We believe these regulations are based on sound science.’

Mark Sylvia,  state official
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Meg Sheehan, coordinator of the Stop Spewing Carbon Campaign, said the new regulations will “ensure that polluting, inefficient large-scale wood burning biomass incinerators don’t get undeserved subsidies.’’

Massachusetts has offered financial incentives for wood-burning power plants since 2002, considering them part of a portfolio of renewable power. State electricity suppliers will be required to obtain 15 percent of their energy from green sources by 2020.

Under the new rules, wood-burning plants would be eligible for subsidies if they use 50 percent of what they burn to generate electricity, up from 40 percent proposed last year. They would receive the full subsidies if they use 60 percent of the wood they burn. Most biomass plants struggle to achieve a 25 percent efficiency rate.

However, new plants that use advanced technology to convert the wood into energy would be required to use only 40 percent of the fuel they burn.

The regulations also require plants to provide a detailed accounting of their carbon emissions and limit them to 50 percent or less of the emissions of a natural gas plant over 20 years. Their wood would also only be able to come from forests with healthy soil.

“We are confident these final rules will establish the proper trajectory for biomass development for Massachusetts,’’ state officials wrote in a summary of the regulations.

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.
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