Almost-Final: Massachusetts’ Biomass Regulations

Late last week, the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER) filed with the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy of the state legislature proposed final amendments to the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) regulations governing the eligibility of woody biomass facilities and fuels to qualify to earn renewable energy credits (RECs).  DOER originally issued a draft of these regulations in September 2010, and made revisions after receiving written comments and holding 2 public hearings.  In addition to the revised regulations, DOER issued a regulatory package containing two sets of guidance in the forms of Excel spreadsheets, the Guideline for the Calculation of Overall Efficiency and Lifecycle GHG Analysis and the Guideline for the Determination of Forest Derived Eligible Biomass Woody Fuel. The Joint Committee has 30 days to review the rules and submit its comments to DOER for additional review. DOER hopes to promulgate the final rules early this summer.

At a time when the EPA appears to be favoring biomass a fuel (with actions like exempting it from the tailoring rule for 3 years), Massachusetts is making it very difficult to qualify “electricity only” biomass as renewable and eligible for RECs, as the rules strongly favor combined heat and power uses.   While the proposed changes to the regulation do not ban the development of biomass facilities in Massachusetts, they do set a very high bar to qualify for renewable energy credits under the RPS – so high that many believe that large scale biomass units may not be viable absent significant technological advances. Under the regulation, the term Eligible Biomass Fuel will include things like woody pellets, agricultural waste and by-products, food or vegetative material, algae and biogases, but officially excludes Construction and Demolition Waste.

Eligible Biomass Woody Fuel, the largest subset of eligible fuels, is now limited to forest-derived residues from timber operations, limited thinnings and invasive growth; forest salvage from storms or pest infestations; non-forest derived residues from lumber mills and woodworking shops, trees removed in converting forests to agricultural, residential or commercial uses (so long as all other permits have been obtained), yard wastes, and maintenance of parks and rights of way. The final category of Eligible Biomass Woody Fuel is “dedicated energy crops” which includes wood (but not cellulosic fuel) that has been purposefully grown to produce fuel, but contains a remarkably broad restriction that the trees may not have been grown in a place that “sequestered significant amounts of carbon” such as a forest, or on land that has the potential to support crops grown for human consumption as food. 

Biomass units are required to provide to DOER in their applications a lifecycle analysis of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and demonstrate emission reductions of at least 50% over 20 years compared to a new, combined-cycle natural gas generator using the most efficient commercially available technology. DOER will provide a standard analytical methodology in another set of guidance to accompany the Statement of Qualification Application. Under both the proposed regulations and Guidance #1 on GHG lifecycle analysis, facilities must account for direct emissions from production of the fuel stock and delivery to the biomass facility, as well as indirect emissions from land use changes, and temporal changes in forest carbon sequestration and emissions resulting from biomass harvests, regrowth, and avoided decomposition.

One new provision added since the September draft requires that the amount of forest-derived biomass material eligible to be removed be limited based on soil types and as set forth in Guidance #2 on Forest-Derived Fuel.  The regulation and guidance set a cap by percentage of weight of the total amount of material harvested from the site, ranging from zero (for very poor quality soils) to 40% (for highly productive soils) – the rest of the biomass harvested must be left in the forest for soil nutrient retention. To effectuate this requirement, foresters will have to develop a soil map for each harvest area and determine the maximum eligible biomass tonnage that can be removed. The September draft had set this cap at 15% across the board.

Both the September draft and this week’s proposed final rules require that biomass units meet a minimum overall efficiency rate of 40%, determined based on the biomass input heat content of the fuel, and accounting for GHG emissions associated with fuel refining and processing.  If operating at that level of efficiency, the unit will receive one-half REC for each MWh of generation. Units operating at an overall efficiency of 60% and above would receive a whole REC credit for each MWh they generate, and units between 40 and 60% would receive a proportional fraction of a REC.

Under the revised regulations, electricity generated by a unit that is used on-site (“behind-the-meter”) is included in the calculations of the unit’s overall efficiency. “Merchantable bio-products” (chemicals like additives and lubricants) created from the woody fuels at an on-site bio-refinery will also be netted out in calculating overall efficiency.  Finally, and perhaps most significantly, productive use of the large quantities of heat generated by the biomass facilities, so long as it falls within the defined term “useful thermal energy” under the regulation, will also be included in the overall efficiency calculation.  However, the revised regulation clarifies that any thermal energy used to dry or refine green woody biomass for use as a fuel will not count towards overall efficiency.  

Biomass generating units that have already secured their Statement of Qualifications will also have to demonstrate compliance with the new regulation. They must prove use of Eligible Biomass Woody Fuel by 2013, and comply with all provisions, including the requirement for overall efficiency, by 2015.


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