Baker retreats more on biomass power plants

Bars any facility in or near environmental justice community

REACTING TO STRONG public opposition, the Baker administration on Friday continued its retreat from measures that would have allowed a power plant fueled by wood to be constructed in Springfield.

Two weeks ago the administration pulled the plug on an air permit for the biomass project and on Friday officials said they are scrapping regulations proposed just four months ago that would have allowed the Springfield facility or one like it to qualify for ratepayer subsidies under the state’s renewable portfolio standard.

Kathleen Theoharides, the secretary of energy and environmental affairs, said the administration reversed course because of an outpouring of concern raised by people in Springfield and environmental advocates about burning wood to generate electricity.

“They spoke clearly and the administration heard their concerns about the negative impact these regulations could have for environmental justice communities if this regulatory framework was not addressed,” she said.

Theoharides said the administration is now seeking to revise the state’s renewable portfolio standard as it applies to new biomass power plants to retain a higher efficiency requirement for the plants and to bar biomass power plants entirely in or within five miles of an environmental justice community.

The notion of environmental justice communities, communities that are defined by measures of income and race and disproportionately impacted by pollution, was codified in the recently signed climate change law, where they were given greater protection.

Patrick Woodcock, the commissioner of the Department of Energy Resources, called the proposed ban on biomass power plants in or near environmental justice communities “a profound step for the state.”

The draft regulations and the withdrawal of the proposed Springfield plant’s air permit will make it very difficult for Palmer Renewable Energy to build its facility and most likely limit the growth of biomass in Massachusetts. Only two biomass power plants currently operate in the state, both of them so-called combined heat and power facilities that generate electricity and heat water. One facility is at Cooley-Dickinson Hospital in Northampton and the other is at an industrial facility in Dalton.

The administration kicked up a firestorm in December when it proposed new regulations dealing with ratepayer subsidies for biomass renewable energy projects. Instead of the existing 50 to 60 percent operating efficiency standard for biomass power plants, the new regulations did away with the efficiency standard if the plant burned so-called non-forest wood, including sawdust and wood debris from, say, tree trimming by utilities.

Opponents of the proposed plant in Springfield reacted with alarm to the new regulations, since they appeared to pave the way for the financing of the Palmer facility. Officials said the Palmer facility had pledged to use only non-forest wood but its efficiency would be around 30 percent.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

CommonWealth ran a number of commentary pieces from people opposed to the Springfield plant as well as a defense of the project by Vic Gatto, the chief operating officer of Palmer Renewable Energy.

Many opponents of the administration’s new regulations suggested Woodcock was pushing the new regulatory scheme to help Palmer Renewable Energy get its project off the ground. Woodcock said his agency never considers individual facilities when establishing policy.