Activist state

The Recorder – State rejection of biomass rooted in Mass West advocacy

Conservationists across the state celebrated the retirement of wood-burning biomass as “renewable” energy earlier this year — a push that started locally — with the adoption of the latest draft of climate law.

“What started as a local Mass West issue has become state policy,” said Laura Haight of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, a group that has worked with lawmakers and environmental groups to achieve the language of biomass described in the new climate law.

The climate bill, signed into law in August by Governor Charlie Baker, includes rebates for electric vehicles and charging stations, a fund for green energy companies and green workforce development for underserved communities, and a change in the law that will make it easier. owners of solar panels to receive compensation for the solar energy they produce. However, what is most important to some longtime advocates is the language that removes wood biomass from the state’s “renewable energy portfolio standards.”

In other words, the state no longer recognizes biomass as a renewable energy, exempting it from energy subsidies.

“When times of change happen, it starts at the local level and moves forward,” said Shelburne Falls resident and environmental activist Janet Sinclair. “If we hadn’t fought these things in these three cities, it’s unlikely the legislature would have voluntarily changed the law. … There wouldn’t have been enough outcry.

Local stories — in Russell, Greenfield and Springfield — are what drove all of these actions, Sinclair said, referring to proposed biomass power plants in each community. “The people of Greenfield should feel really good about this.”

Until 2019 – following a statewide ballot in 2012 – Massachusetts had “very strict standards” for biomass power plants to qualify for renewable energy portfolio standards, according to Haight. Those 2012 standards were a “popular victory,” she said, won by residents and scientists who banded together against proposed biomass power plants, including Greenfield’s.

“Unfortunately, Governor Baker and his administration sought to significantly roll back those standards,” Haight explained.

While the new regulations would have maintained strict standards for new biomass power plants, like the one proposed in Springfield, she said, it would have allowed existing plants built before a certain year to qualify for energy standards. renewable if they claimed to burn primarily non-forest-derived material.

“The fine print expanded that definition of what would qualify and also removed some very critical tracking mechanisms to verify that these factories would burn what they said they would burn,” she said.

Sinclair, who has come out openly against the proposed Greenfield plant, said the planned changes “created an outcry” from those who were part of grassroots efforts that led to tougher regulations passed in 2012. .

“We worked very hard on this,” she said, acknowledging Meg Sheehan, an environmental lawyer, who drafted the voting question to remove biomass from the Renewable Portfolio Standard.

In the wake of rollbacks proposed by Baker in 2019, Haight credited lawmakers for their “stepping up.”

“The public stance was pretty strong on this and repeatedly said we don’t want biomass to be considered renewable energy,” she said. “We took that message to the legislature, and the legislature agreed.”

The concern went beyond forest impacts or climate impacts, she said; it was also about a better understanding of health impacts. Echoing Sinclair, Haight credited the end result to the efforts of local activists and scientists who have spoken out over the past three years. The effort, in part, grew out of changes in 2020 won by Springfield groups fighting for tougher regulations on new biomass power plants.

“What’s important is that it didn’t end there,” Haight said. “Citizens and legislative leaders were thinking, ‘Nobody should have to go through what we’ve been through. … We want to change the law.’ I think it’s important that it’s not just a NIMBY – not in my garden. It shouldn’t be in anyone’s garden.

Although the most recent efforts have focused on opposing the proposed Springfield plant, which is still the subject of legal action, according to Haight, the local fight against biomass power plants began more than a decade ago. years with three development proposals in Massachusetts, including the Mackin Property of Greenfield near the Interstate 91 Industrial Park.

The plant, which received a special permit from the Greenfield Zoning Board of Appeals in 2009, faced early opposition from residents, who appealed to the council after the permit was approved. After several years in court, a judge sided with the residents, referring the project to the Zoning Board of Appeals to revise its plans.

Haight said the new 2012 regulations effectively ended the Greenfield and Russell projects — an indication, she noted, of the importance of subsidies for these types of projects.

In 2015, local efforts resulted in the passing of a municipal ordinance by the city council that would prevent Greenfield biomass.

“We’re still hoping that these local efforts will translate into something statewide,” Sinclair said. “Tobacco regulations were imposed city by city before the state banned smoking in public spaces. It’s a great example of how these big changes can happen at the local level.

Journalist Mary Byrne can be reached at [email protected] or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne.

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