Proposed Biomass Limits Would Restrict New Plants in 90 Percent of Massachusetts

Shira Schoenberg – CommonWealth reporter

July 30, 2021

Months after the Baker administration pulled the plug on plans for a controversial new biomass plant in Springfield, state environmental officials proposed new regulations that would drastically limit where biomass plants can be located.

The rules promulgated by the Department of Energy Resources in April say new biomass plants located in or within five miles of an environmental justice community will not qualify as a renewable energy source under a state program, the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard or RPS, that requires energy producers to obtain a certain amount of energy from renewable sources. Financially, that would likely make it impossible for a company to locate a plant there.

Environmental justice communities are generally poor communities of color that are disproportionately affected by pollution.

Practically, Massachusetts has adopted an expansive definition of environmental justice communities, which means that about 90% of the state is within five miles of one of these communities. Most of the remaining places where biomass would be eligible for the incentive are in rural Western Massachusetts.

The restrictions, which will be the subject of a legislative hearing on Friday, are angering representatives of the few communities that could still be targeted to host biomass plants.

“If we’re going to regulate biomass out of 90 percent of the commonwealth, we might as well make it ineligible for [incentive programs] across the entire commonwealth,” said Sen. Adam Hinds, a Pittsfield Democrat who represents 17 towns where biomass would remain eligible. Hinds worries that the towns in his district will be aggressively pursued by biomass companies, and he worries about pollution.

Sen. Jo Comerford, a Northampton Democrat who represents three eligible communities, said she has long believed biomass should not be eligible as a renewable energy source because of the pollution it creates – which makes it less “green” than wind or solar power. Comerford said she agrees with DOER’s decision to keep biomass out of environmental justice communities. But she said retaining eligibility in 10 percent of the state puts DOER “in a pretzel-like argument.”

“It’s saying biomass in environmental justice communities is bad, but biomass in Leyden is good,” Comerford said.

Sen. Patrick O’Connor, a Weymouth Republican who represents three eligible communities, spearheaded a letter signed by nine lawmakers expressing concern that in 35 municipalities, biomass would still be incentivized. “These large-scale power plants would burn about 1,200 tons of wood per day, emitting masses of soot and harmful pollutants into the air of surrounding communities, exacerbating existing consequences of poor air quality, such as asthma and other respiratory ailments,” O’Connor wrote. “These regulations not only demonstrate environmental neglect, but they are also patently unfair towards these ‘exception’ communities who are being both targeted for biomass siting and then are forced to endure the obstructive and harmful consequences of this energy production.”

According to the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, DOER is required by statute to make biomass energy eligible for the RPS program. Biomass reduces lifecycle greenhouse gases and encourages a market for low grade wood, which can promote better forest management and avoid costly expenses to dispose of the material. The five-mile exclusion was created to protect environmental justice communities that are already overburdened by pollution.

In a letter to the chairs of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy, DOER commissioner Patrick Woodcock wrote that the proposed rules also align with a provision in state law that requires an environmental report for any project that impacts air quality, is likely to damage the environment, and is located within five miles of an environmental justice community.