New state regulations going into effect Friday will provide new state subsidies for using a range of renewable technologies and fuels. But the change is raising questions among some environmentalists about what it means to be renewable.
The rule change is the result of legislation passed in 2014 and expands what qualifies for the alternative energy portfolio standards, giving credits and subsidies for fuel cells, solar thermal, heat pumps, geothermal, and the one that’s proven to be a bit controversial —biomass fuel.
For the most part, that means burning wood pellets that are manufactured to create heat and energy. The alternative energy credits aren’t for people heating their homes — they’re intended for larger scale operations, like schools, hospitals or some industrial places.
In a sense, wood is renewable since trees eventually regrow. “Renewable sounds wonderful," said William Moomaw, co-director of the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University. “And people have always equated renewable with low or no carbon. And that’s not the case with bioenergy. To cut down trees and then burn them puts carbon dioxide into the atmosphere immediately.”
But Patrick Woodcock of the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER) says the state is interested in subsidizing wood as an energy source because it’s replacing fossil fuels.
“In our rules there has to be a determination that this is 50 percent lower than oil and natural gas emissions,” Woodcock said. “Biomass really provides, along with geothermal [and] solar thermal, a real way to lower emissions from the oil and natural gas that we’re using to heat our buildings.”
The rules also state that the wood has to come from sustainable forestry practices.
But Caitlin Peale Sloan with the Conservation Law Foundation says the way the rules are drafted doesn’t go far enough. “If there aren't strong enough standards on these subsidies then it could go to someone burning whole trees for fuel, and that has a huge negative carbon impact,” Peale Sloan said.
Patrick Woodcock of the DOER says these are very strict rules, and the state pays close attention to what the source of the wood is, to ensure that it’s the result of good forestry practices.
At New England Wood Pellet in New Hampshire, the largest company in the area creating this kind of fuel, consultant Charlie Niebling says between 70 and 100 percent of their pellets are made from waste byproduct of manufacturing wood products like lumber, furniture and flooring.
“We buy their sawdust, their chips, their shavings, the stuff that's left over after they make a product, and that material is considered by definition to be sustainably sourced,” Niebling said.
A small amount comes from timber harvesting here in New England, Niebling adds. But he says that comes from carefully regulated harvests with good forestry operations.
“I think with the safeguards that are in place through this regulation and through the forest harvesting regulations in the state of Massachusetts, I don't think people need to be concerned that this incentive is somehow going to result in widespread deforestation,” Niebling said. “It’s simply not going to happen.”
Patrick Woodcock of the state DOER actually suggested that the rule change could result in more healthy forests in Massachusetts, because if there’s a market here for forest products, people who own forests might be less inclined to sell them off for development.