In the closing days of July, the Massachusetts House of Representatives rushed through language in its 2050 Climate Roadmap Bill – a broad package of climate proposals – that defines biomass power plants as “non-carbon emitting energy” sources. A conference committee with three members each from the House and Senate will decide the ultimate fate of this legislation this fall. PFPI and environmental justice advocates in Springfield, MA and across the state are urging the conference committee to reject this language.
Specifically, Section 15 of H.4933 creates a new greenhouse gas (GHG) emission standard for municipally owned electric utilities in MA, known as municipal light plants (MLPs). MLPs are exempt from many of the standards that apply to investor-owned utilities, like National Grid and Eversource, so this provision on its surface appears to be a step forward in reducing GHG emissions from the power sector.
The problem, however, lies in the definition of “non-carbon emitting energy.” The House bill defines this term to include both non-emitting energy sources, such as solar, wind, hydro, and nuclear, and biogenic fuels, which emit carbon when combusted, such as landfill gas, anaerobic digestion, and biomass. It also includes any other generation qualifying for MA’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard (RPS), which brings in garbage incineration, and for good measure gives the MA Department of Energy Resources (DOER) unlimited authority to add additional resources. In all, there are four different ways that a woody biomass power plant could qualify as “non-carbon emitting energy” for the purpose of this new MLP procurement standard – even though biomass plants are more polluting than coal.
Calling biomass “non-carbon emitting” is flawed for multiple reasons:
1) It’s categorically wrong and conflicts with state policy. Biomass power plants are major sources of CO2 emissions. Smokestack CO2 emissions from a wood-burning power plant are about 150% those of a new coal plant, for the same amount of electricity generated, and about 350% those of a new combined cycle natural gas plant.[i] State policy in MA already acknowledges this. Under MA’s Clean Energy Standard, only hydro, nuclear, ocean, solar and wind power are defined as “non-emitting electricity generators.”[ii]
2) It undermines years of science-based policy-making. Massachusetts has led the nation in recognizing that burning biomass releases CO2 emissions. MA uses stringent, science-based criteria for allowing biomass power plants to qualify for the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), developed through an extensive rulemaking process and informed by the 2010 Manomet study commissioned by DOER.[iii] In addition, MA’s Alternate Portfolio Standard, which promotes renewable heating technologies, has clear statutory language limiting biomass eligibility based on pollution control standards, lifecycle GHG emissions, efficiency, and forestry practices.[iv]
3) It promotes the sale of biomass energy from plants that are too polluting to qualify for Massachusetts’ renewable energy credits. Only highly efficient biomass cogeneration plants that show a carbon benefit over 20 years relative to natural gas power plants currently qualify for renewable energy subsidies in MA, and there are sustainability criteria limiting the wood that can be burned. The House bill would allow any biomass power plant to qualify, no matter what type of fuel it burns or how polluting and inefficient.
The Senate and House climate bills vary substantially and only the House version of the climate bill includes the proposed new MLP GHG emissions standard. PFPI and other organizations are urging the climate bill conference committee to remove the faulty definition of “non-carbon emitting energy” from any legislation they negotiate. Should the final climate legislation include an MLP standard, it should only allow energy sources that qualify for MA’s Renewable Portfolio Standard or meet the definition of “non-emitting” under MA’s Clean Energy Standard to be eligible.
Springfield EJ Community Would be Impacted “First and Worst” if MA Weakens its Restrictions on Biomass Energy
If the House language becomes law, it will be a lifeline for a proposed 35-MW biomass power plant that Palmer Renewable Energy has been trying to build for years in the heart of an environmental justice community in East Springfield, MA. The Palmer plant is the only largescale commercial biomass power plant currently being advanced in Massachusetts and if built would be the largest in the state.
Springfield’s residents, who are already disproportionately burdened by air pollution and associated health problems, have been fighting the proposed Palmer biomass plant for more than a decade as well as working to address existing pollution sources. For two years in a row, Springfield has been named the “Asthma Capital of the USA,” based on sky-rocketing asthma rates, emergency room visits, and asthma-related deaths, and the American Lung Association has given Springfield failing grades for its air quality.[v] Long before “I can’t breathe” became the iconic catch phrase for the Black Lives Matter movement, Springfield EJ groups like Arise for Social Justice were telling MA environmental officials the same thing.
The Palmer plant would worsen an already dire situation by emitting more than 200 tons per year of fine particulates, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, heavy metals, carcinogens, and other harmful air pollutants out its smokestack, plus additional air pollution from truckloads of wood delivered to the facility and dust from wood fuel and ash stored on site. The plant is permitted to operate 24/7 and burn nearly a ton of wood per minute. In addition to the litany of health impacts associated with increased air pollution, such as respiratory ailments, diabetes, and heart disease, recent studies have shown that low-income communities of color with poor air quality suffer disproportionately higher death rates from Covid-19.[vi]
For all these reasons, Springfield health, climate, and environmental justice advocates have raised alarm bells about this provision in the House climate proposal and in a strongly-worded letter urged their state representatives to vigorously oppose it, writing: “this bill would allow the dirtiest of all power plants to qualify for a program that’s intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is unconscionable from both a climate perspective and an environmental justice perspective and will harm the people in Springfield first and worst.”
Palmer Actively Seeking Financing to Build
Springfield activists call the Palmer biomass plant a “zombie plant” because every time they think it’s finally dead it comes back to life again. The Palmer plant received its permits a decade ago but never began construction, primarily because it could not get the financing it needed to build. Then, in late 2018, seemingly out of the blue, Palmer announced it would break ground the following spring. No doubt they were privy to information that the rest of the public only learned about in 2019.
Since 2019, the following developments have occurred, all of which would provide significant financial support for the Palmer biomass plant:
- In April, Energy New England (ENE), which markets energy to MLPs, began encouraging MLPs in the eastern part of the state to enter into long-term power purchasing agreements (PPAs) with the Palmer plant, falsely touting its climate benefits and claiming that the facility would be eligible for MA renewable energy credits by fall 2019. PFPI, Arise, and the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition (SCJC) wrote a letter to ENE last May expressing their outrage and urging ENE to stop peddling polluting Palmer power. The Palmer developers need commitments to purchase their power in order to secure financing to begin construction.
- Shortly thereafter, the Baker Administration issued draft rules that would have dramatically weakened the RPS biomass criteria and allowed Palmer to become eligible for renewable energy credits (RECs). Springfield groups demanded and secured a public hearing on the rule change, citing MA’s EJ policy. After hearing from hundreds of citizens and organizations opposing the rule change, the Baker Administration has still not released final regulations. If Baker’s proposed RPS rule changes are adopted, Palmer could reap an estimated $10-12 million in RECs each year, in perpetuity.
- In late 2019, the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee, chaired by Congressman Richie Neal, whose district contains Springfield, introduced the GREEN Act, which revived the renewable energy production tax credits (PTC) for biomass power plants. PFPI, Arise, and SCJC wrote a letter to Congressman Neal urging him to remove incentives for biomass in the GREEN Act. Instead, the tax credit was extended through 2020 as part of the FY 2020 federal budget, and this year House Democrats proposed extending the tax credit through 2025. If Congress passes the tax credits advanced by the House Ways & Means Committee, Palmer would be eligible for an estimated $33 million over ten years.
- On July 29, 2020, the Massachusetts House of Representatives introduced its 2050 Climate Roadmap bill, which included the proposed MLP GHG emission standard, and passed the bill two days later, with almost no opportunity for public input. If the language in H.4933 Section 15 calling biomass “non-carbon emitting energy” is not removed, it will provide a clear incentive for municipalities to purchase power from Palmer biomass, potentially providing the green light for Palmer to receive the financing it needs to begin construction. It will also encourage municipal light plants to purchase power from existing biomass plants in Maine and elsewhere in New England that are too polluting to qualify for renewable energy subsidies in MA.
Take Action for Clean Air and Environmental Justice!
A conference committee has been set up to negotiate the final language of the climate bill, comprised of six members: Senators Michael Barrett, Cynthia Creem, and Patrick O’Connor, and Representatives Tom Golden, Patricia Haddad, and Brad Jones. Whatever comes out of the climate conference committee this fall will be voted on without further opportunity for amendment. It would then go to Governor Baker for his signature.
MA residents can take action by contacting their state legislators and urging them to reach out to their peers on the climate conference committee to oppose language in the House bill that defines biomass energy as “non-carbon emitting,” and by signing this petition to the conference committee chairs, Senator Barrett and Rep. Golden.
[i] Mary S. Booth, Partnership for Policy Integrity, Trees, Trash, and Toxics: How Biomass Energy Has Become the New Coal (2014), http://www.pfpi.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/PFPI-Biomass-is-the-New-Coal-April-2-2014.pdf.
[ii] 310 CMR 7.75(2).
[iii] Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, Biomass Sustainability and Carbon Policy Study (June 2010), https://www.mass.gov/files/documents/2016/08/qx/manomet-biomass-report-full-hirez.pdf.
[iv] M.G.L. c. 25A, § 11F½.
[v] Asthma & Allergy Found. of America, Asthma Capitals 2019: The Most Challenging Places to Live with Asthma (2019), https://www.aafa.org/media/2426/aafa-2019-asthma-capitals-report.pdf
[vi] Xiao Wu and Rachel C. Nethery, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Exposure to Air Pollution and COVID-19 Mortality in the United States: A Nationwide Cross-Sectional Study (April 24, 2020), https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/covid-pm